For nearly 40 years gastroenterologist Donald Douglas of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania practiced medicine in the traditional way. He worked in comfortable medical suites and hospitals with access to the best equipment that technology offered. Most of his patients had insurance coverage that allowed them to pursue the treatment they needed.
He could have retired from his profession, never stepping outside his comfort zone.
But that changed when he learned of Mission of Mercy, a community-based nonprofit that provides free medical and dental services and prescriptions to the uninsured working poor and homeless via mobile clinics that operate in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, and Maryland.
He knew that his skills as a doctor were sorely needed, but like many professionals his time was limited. He already was visiting two federal prisons every week through a Catholic ministry he founded, meeting with prisoners to pray the rosary or help administer sacraments.
"Mission of Mercy stayed in my mind for a couple of years," says Douglas, 64. "I knew I had to find a way make it work."
He did it by taking an early retirement in 2000. That allowed him to sign on with the ministry, founded by Catholic pharmacist Gianna Talone-Sullivan, and volunteer at least twice a month, sometimes more. Since the van moves around to different locations, it required driving anywhere from 60 to 125 miles one way.
"The time in the car is a good time to pray," he says. "Every time I'm at a clinic, it teaches me humility and [reminds me] that only by the grace of God I'm not in the same position as our patients."
Although it's a Catholic-based ministry, Douglas says the volunteers don't preach. "People who come know this is God's work. That's the important thing."
Douglas says he's proud of the work Mission of Mercy does. Still, on some days, he leaves the clinic with tears in his eyes, wishing he could do more for his patients. He sees cases that require more treatment than he can provide.
"We're not rocket scientists or miracle workers. We just practice darn good medicine. The main thing is, these people we treat know they are loved," he says. "If they can walk out of that van knowing someone really cares for them, we've done our job."
Now Douglas is facing a serious challenge of his own: The doctor has become a patient. He was diagnosed in August 2008 with pancreatic cancer. Because he's prone to infections while undergoing chemotherapy, he's had to put his volunteer work on hold, though he still practices medicine once a week. "Being on the other side of the table is an eye-opening experience."
"It's in the Lord's hands now," he says. "Until I'm able to return, I'm encouraging others to get involved in the ministry. The poor have just as much right to health care as the rest of us."
This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 24-28).
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