April 28, 2015

San Antonio’s Free Clinic Changed Me as a Surgeon

, general surgeon, Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital

I’d never been as unprepared for a “mission”trip as I was for the Your Best Pathways to Health event that provided $20 million in free Adventist healthcare to 6,192 patients at the Alamodome stadium in San Antonio, Texas.

I put “mission” in quotation marks because I figured ahead of the April 8-10 event that if I wasn’t leaving U.S. soil, I wasn’t really engaging in missions.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The demographics of the patients who came to me for general surgery surprised me. About 60 percent of the patients only spoke Spanish. Another 30 percent were bilingual, probably preferring Spanish, while the remaining 10 percent were native English speakers.

This immediately struck me. No matter what you may think about the U.S. government’s healthcare policy, many people remain in the shadows of the government’s reach to provide access to healthcare. This explained the long lines of people around the stadium. The need was overwhelming.

Almost every patient I saw simply had no means to visit a health professional in their own country or in ours, legally or otherwise. Without a social security number or some other form of identification, they had little hope of receiving treatment.

About half of my patients required surgery, which I gladly would have offered for free if I had had access to an operating room.

The surgeons who volunteered at the stadium were able to perform bigger operations under general anesthesia at the Adventist-operated Central Texas Medical Center located 45 minutes north of San Antonio. But patients who received surgery had to sign up in advance in order to undergo pre-surgery screening.

I asked many patients: “Is there any way you could see a surgeon? You need surgery soon.”

They looked at me incredulously.

I found myself thinking: “Of course they can’t see a surgeon! If they could, why would they be here?”

This circular conversation in my mind made me feel discouraged. Jesus was right in Mark 14:7. No matter our attempts in society, we will always have the poor. Still we managed to perform 60 surgeries at the hospital and another 300 simpler procedures at the stadium. This was the tip of the iceberg, but it did make a difference.

The Formula Excited Me

What really excited me about Your Best Pathways to Health was the formula. I have often participated in free clinics and in evangelistic series, but this was the first time that I have seen free healthcare and evangelism merged, beautifully incorporating the love of Jesus by both serving and teaching. In other words, I saw comprehensive health evangelism in practice.

Some of the 1,700 volunteers arrived grumpy, indifferent, antagonistic or just unaware. But all left changed and blessed. The event changed the lives of everyone.

Many volunteers were so proud of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and of engaging in an activity so in line with the ministry of Jesus. The free clinic was practical and much needed. I’m certain we would see the church grow rapidly if the concept were replicated across North America and in other developed countries.

No patient left the San Antonio stadium without prayer, education, love, literature, and an invitation to the many local programs that are being held in various churches after the event and leading up to the General Conference session in San Antonio in July. Patients can attend cooking classes, depression recovery programs, diabetes classes, creation health classes, and evangelism seminars.

The free clinic was more than a three-day event. Extensive and well-planned followup was put in place. As a surgeon, I sensed part of something that could meet every need I saw in each patient, whether they had a surgical issue or not. This was an opportunity to introduce people to the love of Christ through a comprehensive method that I don’t have the manpower to do in my office on a regular and intense basis. “This is the gospel in action!” I remember thinking to myself.

Each department contributed equally at the event, addressing physical, emotional, social, and spiritual components. From a new haircut and suit to a new smile, some patients felt like they were told to pick up their mat and walk. “Hope” was the resounding feedback as the patients left, along with the question, “When are you coming back again?”

Real World Meets Jesus’ World

I live as a physician in a world of ever-increasing government regulation, meaningless computer work, fitful insurance companies, declining reimbursement, increased demand, and underserved people all around. At Your Best Pathways to Health, all of those worries disappeared. It was pure joy to do what I could with the limited resources that I had. If I received the appreciation from every patient like I did in San Antonio, I would keep working for free. This is part of the reason I believe Jesus healed people: purity of practice.

I don’t think that the church could have been more relevant, hitting at the core of what it means to be Christ-like. It felt quite different compared with the everyday practice in the real world.

The “real world” has changed me in some ways. But my perspective about mission has changed after San Antonio. Each patient in a multitude represents an opportunity to introduce Jesus, the Physician with the greatest compassion.

I didn’t think I was going on a mission trip before San Antonio. But I realized when I returned home that the mission trip had only started. I wasn’t prepared for the effect that the free clinic would have on my view of my practice and my view of my church. I now have so much more appreciation for Adventist Church leader Ted N.C. Wilson’s emphasis on comprehensive health evangelism. Efforts like these bring to a culmination the love of Jesus with a prophetic end-time movement that shows its “works” by providing for those who can’t provide for themselves.

Jesus was no stranger to a multitude of people: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest’” (Matthew 9:35-38).

In an age of ever-increasing divide in the United States and the church, comprehensive health evangelism served as a uniting force among those who volunteered in San Antonio. If more people would join such efforts, I think we would find ourselves going home a lot sooner than we thought.

Anyone can help, and to that I know Jesus would say, “Well done.” Jesus is coming again very soon, and this is the work that I think He would like to find us doing.

Other stories from San Antonio

“Surprise Stories Emerge From Free Clinic in San Antonio,” a roundup of the event

“2 Numbers You (Probably) Haven't Heard From San Antonio,” the impact of religious literature on the event

“How I Saw Jesus’ Hands in San Antonio,” the observations of a volunteer chaplain