Today, I'm thrilled to get to interview Bill Ragon, a Jackson based CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) and Madison County Commissioner. I'm profiling Bill today because of the heart he has for international mission work and his recent work with Samaritan's Purse. For 15 days in February, Bill worked as a CRNA putting patients to sleep for surgery in a mobile hospital in Mosul, Iraq.
Bill happens to not only be one of my husband's co-workers, but also one of his mentors. Josh truly admires Bill both professionally and personally, and I'm honored to share his story with you today.
Bill, thanks for stopping by today. I love your heart for mission work. Can you tell us about some of the mission work you've done prior to this year?
I have been blessed to have had many opportunities to serve God and my fellow man at many different times and places. It may have been in the pre-op area when you sense that your patient needs more than a medical history. They need assurance, touch, compassion, and at times your prayer. It also has taken me to six different countries. I have worked in Ecuador, Haiti following the earthquake, Jamaica, Uganda, Nicaragua and Iraq. All of these were an answer to a call from God to go and serve. Remember God doesn’t call the qualified…he qualifies the called.
I'd love to learn more about how you ended up working in a mobile hospital in Mosul, Iraq last month.
The Monday before Christmas I got an email from Samaritan’s Purse saying there was an immediate need for CRNAs and medical professionals to go to Mosul, Iraq. After reading the email, my heart dropped and I immediately felt like God was wanting me to go there. I called my son and asked him to check on it before I told my wife. After calling some friends, Rob, my son, said that he thought it would be fine. He said more than likely, it would be a safe place to go. I immediately told my wife Jayne that I felt called to go to Mosul and be a part of this mobile hospital. I learned later that she cried for two solid days and prayed. She said that God assured her that I would be safe and that she would stand behind me and support what God was calling me to do.
So in December you felt God calling you to go, but Samaritan's Purse said they were okay until February 24th?
Yes, in my mind, I felt like that was a sign that I really wasn't going to go.
The last weekend of January, I, along with my sons and four grandkids, went to Arkansas duck hunting. On the way home my son was getting phone calls and texts from friend’s wives whose husbands were deployed. The raid in Yemen had occurred and a buddy of his had died. Rob remembered "my trip to Iraq" and said his friends were saying I shouldn't go. But, he knew I wouldn't listen if and when I were called.
Little did I knew that the "call" would be coming soon.
The next morning I woke up to an email from Samaritan's Purse saying they had an emergency need for me, and could I go today? I prayed for God’s will to be done. I went on to the gym, then to work, and told my manager I needed to get the time off because I needed to leave immediately. Jayne and I had dinner with our family (kids and grandkids), and the next day I took the multiple flight journey to Iraq.
Can you tell me what it was like when you first arrived in Iraq?
We landed around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning in a very metropolitan, modern town called Erbil. It's about 60 miles to Mosul, Iraq, so we were taken to the Samaritan's Purse complex in Erbil to stay the night. We were told to go on to sleep and that we'd have some time on Wednesday to get acquainted, go through security protocol and then on Thursday we'd head to Mosul. Less than 6 hours later, I was told to get on up because I was needed at the hospital that day.
So you've had very little (if any) sleep. You are woken up and driven 60 miles to the mobile hospital. What was going through your mind on the way there?
As I left the modern town of Erbil, we drove through the war torn country toward Mosul. I heard constant mortar fire, small weapons fire and bombs dropped from allied aircraft. It didn’t take long for my heart rate to increase and realize that I was truly in a warzone. By 3:00 that day, I was in an Operating Room taking care of a 9-year-old boy with shrapnel, throughout his stomach, small bowel, colon, arms, and legs. ISIS had dropped a hand grenade on him and his friends on a play ground in his neighborhood from a drone. My prayer then was for God to lift me up to the level I needed to perform to take care of His children.
Bill, you've been a CRNA since 1979. I'm sure you've seen all kinds of surgeries and cases at the hospital. Were you prepared for what you saw in Mosul?
I was prepared for the "medical" part of the work I was doing, but I was not prepared for the emotional part. I don't think anyone is ever prepared to take care of so many children injured in such a ruthless way. It was very hard. Everything I saw-every injury I treated- was intentional harm done by someone else; every wound was created maliciously by someone else. There were mortars launched in schools; grenades dropped on school yards and food distribution centers. I took care of a man who lost his 2 brothers to a suicide bomber in their family restaurant.
One night each bed in the trauma unit was occupied by a child less then nine. One child, 11 months old, had both legs amputated. There were countless kids with shrapnel in the brain. Why? What can be the point? ISIS planted thousands of IED’s in homes. Everything was booby trapped. Pick up a toaster, step on the carpet and Boom!! In this former city of Nineveh, a war is going on between good and evil. We were on the front lines and saw its grim reality.
I cannot even fathom witnessing those types of injuries and knowing the evil that caused it. I can only imagine the strength you and your co-workers must have had. What were they like?
They were from around the world, and answered God's call just like I did. We had people from New Zealand, England, the U.S., Africa, Canada and Brazil. They all gave 100%. We laughed and cried and witnessed unspeakable horrors. It was a privilege to serve with them, and I would go anywhere with them again
What was a "typical" day like for you in Mosul?
I would wake up at 7:00 am to eat. Then, we'd have chapel/devotional at 8:00 am and the first part of the day we would have 3-4 "easy" cases. Early each afternoon, we would start hearing the ambulances. We would receive a bunch of seriously injured people at one time. They were mostly children injured by an explosion. Try to imagine having six children, all of them with hundreds of holes from shrapnel. The dying patients were placed in a quiet corner where nurses and staff would hold them, care for them, sing to them and pray for them as they slowly died. Then they would reverently wash the body, continue praying for their soul to find Jesus, and finally wrap their bodies in a white sheet to go to the morgue.
What was one of your most memorable parts of your experience?
It actually was when we had the Lord's Supper the second Sunday I was there. It was around 9:30 pm that night, and we were finishing up our cases preparing to take Communion. That's right around the time bombing of West Mosul started. We took Communion and all around us mortars and bombs and helicopters were flying over. It sounded like a low thunderstorm and everything vibrated. Literally, bombs were going off less than 6-7 miles away. It was all of our first experience with something like that. We were getting to participate in the Lord's Supper in the middle of a war-torn, combat zone.
You developed a special bond with another CRNA at the hospital. Can you share with us that story?
Interesting story...I'd been there about ten days when Darren from Montana arrived. He was probably in his mid-40s, and was experienced in OB anesthesia. He said he had flown in the Air force on a trauma helicopter, but had not done that in over 10 years. The first day he was there, I was assigned to get him acquainted to the hospital. That night, we had a ranking Colonel who was injured by a suicide bomber. We were standing there together and this patient's vitals were gone. I look over and Darren has huge tears streaming down his face. He looked at me and said, "This is the first person I’ve seen die since my wife died." I gave him a big hug and prayed with him. He went on to tell me that his wife was an anesthesiologist in the air force-that's where they met. They had been married 7 years and three months into his wife's pregnancy, she was diagnosed with leukemia. The doctors took their baby at 34 weeks, and his wife lived only 3 months after the baby was born. He had not seen anyone die since the day his wife died. That night in the mobile hospital, Darren looked at me and said, "I can’t do this Bill." I stood right by him that night and assured him he could. The relationship we’ve formed is so special, and I'm grateful for the time I was able to work with him.
What advice would you have for someone that wonders how to answer God’s calling? What’s one thing they absolutely must do?
I would tell them to pray hard and to surround yourself with other Christians who can pray with you. I have so many prayer warriors who helped pray over my decision, and continued to pray for me while I was there. People like my family, my pastor, and my friends, like Josh. They all surrounded me with love and prayer.
What's one of your favorite scripture verses that carried you through this time?
1 Peter 5:6-7 "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all of your anxiety on him because he cares for you."
I love that verse. I can imagine the comfort it must have brought you knowing that you were "under God's mighty hand" while serving over there. Thanks for your service, and for sharing your story with us.
If you want to learn more about Samaritan's Purse and their work, click here
For those of you who live in West Tennessee, Franklin Graham, President/CEO of Samaritan's Purse, will be in Jackson, TN on May 19, 2017. Click here for more information on that event.