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"And God Smiled on Utila" details a retired Brooksville doctor's trip to start a clinic

Dr. Gary Wilson and his wife, Marilyn, started a clinic on Utila in 1977. He holds a copy of his book about their missionary work.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Dr. Gary Wilson and his wife, Marilyn, started a clinic on Utila in 1977. He holds a copy of his book about their missionary work.

When Dr. Gary Wilson's pastor approached him in the spring of 1977 and proposed a mission trip to a small island off Honduras to set up a clinic, Wilson agreed to go.

Three men from First United Methodist Church of Brooksville, including its pastor, the Rev. Robert Fox, had just returned from a trip to Central America and saw the need for medical aid in one of the Bay Islands called Utila.

Esther Hanners, a 21-year-old newlywed and native of the island, had just completed her nurse's training in Pennsylvania. A doctor, they decided, was needed to train Hanners to be able to run a clinic and provide her with the necessary medicine and equipment.

Wilson, an internist who had begun his practice in Michigan in 1969 and moved to Brooksville in 1970, was familiar with the concept of short-term medical mission trips. But he had a problem with the idea of a doctor going into a needy area for a week or two, treating the people and then leaving.

This idea was much better.

"It was never intended to be just a mission trip for a couple weeks or a month," Wilson said. "Our goal was to make this a real clinic that would always be there to take care of these people on the island, and that's how it turned out."

Being able to train Hanners to continue with the treatment of patients after he left — with him supervising from afar by ham radio — sounded perfect to Wilson.

Relishing the idea of some time with his family, he also thought it would be a great idea to take them along on the trip.

That June, Wilson; his wife, Marilyn, a registered nurse; and their three children — Melinda, 11, Chris, 7, and Benji, 2 — left the comfortable life they enjoyed to head to an island 7 miles long and 3 miles wide.

In a book released last month, And God Smiled on Utila, Wilson tells the story of his family's 30 days on Utila, an island of fishermen, farmers and shopkeepers, descendents of British settlers, Central American Indians, Spaniards and Black Caribs.

Now 69 and retired from his practice at Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville, Wilson was able to use his and his wife's journals and notes to recount, in 12 chapters, how a short-term mission trip turned into a long-term blessing.

From the unpredictable landing on the beach by the small six-seat Cessna in which they were flying to the discovery that the mission house that would be their dwelling for the next month was unkempt and infested with rats and roaches, the Wilson family realized they were in for a testing of the faith that had led them to undertake their mission.

"I grew up in the church, but my faith had never been tested," said Wilson, the son of a pastor. "We were Christians, quote unquote, and we went to church, but to land on that island that day with small children, being basically city people who had everything we could want in the states, that alone was a real test of our tenacity and faith."

Another test came when they learned that the 30 boxes of medicine and supplies sent ahead by Wilson had not yet arrived. He would have to begin treating patients without them.

His family had its own testing.

"The conditions were so difficult for Marilyn," Wilson said. "We had no running water, no toilet that worked normally. Benji had diarrhea off and on and staph infection. We were hot, and Marilyn's allergic to sand fleas. I had to give her steroids the whole time we were down there. So she was tested in those ways."

But as the Wilsons discovered, and as Wilson recounts in his book, often with humor, the blessings that came with the trip were worth it.

In the more poignant accounts, Wilson chronicles his treatment of a man who was dying of heart failure, delivering a baby that didn't want to be born and performing surgery on a young boy with 12 fingers.

"Several times, I was just terribly overwhelmed with situations where I felt absolutely lost as to what to be able to do, and yet the Lord saw me through all those episodes and everything turned out quite well," he said. "When Mr. Astor was dying, it happened fairly early on, and there was no way I could have saved his life with what I had to work with."

Wilson said the experience with Mr. Astor was pivotal in having a successful ministry in Utila.

"I believe with all my heart, had he died and if we'd had another failure or two, the people would not have accepted us the way they did," he said. "His living another year after that really jelled the island with us and with our church and with America."

By the time the Wilsons' trip was over, their mission had been accomplished. Not only was Wilson able to train Hanners to treat the islanders, but his wife was also able to set up a laboratory and train Hanners and others how to run it.

And there was another kind of success.

"My faith in Jesus Christ became real to me for the first time," Wilson said. "I believed in answered prayer, but I had never seen anything that jolted me. Utila changed all that in my life. I drew so close to the Lord at the time, and it never subsided after that to any great extent."

The story didn't end with the family's return to the United States. They made multimedia presentations to increase support and, along with their church and others, watched as a clinic and school were built on the island, and made other improvements over the years.

The Wilsons have often gone back to visit and feel that Utila is a part of their family.

"The clinic is still taking care of all kinds of people, and it's much like being in the states now as far as the care there," Wilson said. "That's what we dreamed about and that's what the Lord wanted us to do.

"The biggest accomplishment is the clinic, our church's involvement in the clinic and the people that have come to the states and continue to get educated and get into ministries. That's why I titled the book And God Smiled on Utila, because he really has smiled on that island."

Fast facts

Lend a hand

And God Smiled on Utila: A Short-Term Mission, A Long-Term Blessing by Dr. Gary E. Wilson is available for $13.99 in paperback through Tate Publishing at www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore and in bookstores. Half of the proceeds from books purchased through the publisher will go toward Methodist missions.

"And God Smiled on Utila" details a retired Brooksville doctor's trip to start a clinic 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:00pm]
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