The Legacy of Father Luke

Courtesy of Fundação Esperança

James Tupper came into contact with extreme poverty for the first time in 1960. At age 26, freshly graduated from Wisconsin Medical School, then an officer aboard the US Navy's icebreaker to Antarctica. He was curious and uneasy, and he went ashore every time the ship docked along the eastern coast of South America, visiting hospitals and the impoverished places of the cities. In these places, he saw suffering he would never forget. There were families living in shacks built on islands of garbage and sewage out in the open. Children with swollen tummies sat and in front of apathetic houses made of clay and stick, without the strength to play. The adults coughed and spit blood.

After fulfilling his military duties, Dr. Tupper began his surgical residency at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He loved medicine, but the suffering he witnessed in South America continued to persecute him, and in 1963 he gave up a promising career as a surgeon for his priestly vocation. In this way, he decided to be a medical missionary in Brazil. "I think this was where God wanted me to be," he wrote to his mother, before entering the Franciscan religious order.

While preparing for the priesthood, Tupper studied Latin and Greek at St. Joseph Seminary, located in Oak Brook, Illinois. He completed his university degree in Philosophy and taught first aid to Peace Corps volunteers in exchange for an intensive Portuguese course. In 1968, he arrived in Salvador, Bahia, to study Theology. He treated the sick in the favelas with ointments and pills.

Deaths that Could be Avoided

From September to December 1969, Dr. Tupper visited Santarém, a port city where the Tapajós and Amazonas rivers meet in a needy area, located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest . During this time, he traveled from community to community by boat, bike, motorcycle, jeep and on foot. He discovered that diseases such as burns, snake bites, appendicitis, and other medical emergencies that could easily be treated in the city were often fatal in the Amazon. In addition, there were less than a dozen doctors and dentists concentrated in just three cities, treating 250,000 people living in large areas, most of which were isolated. He worked up to 14 hours a day. Tupper was dismayed by the amount of suffering that surrounded him: children with crooked feet who walked with the sides of their ankles, deformities due to poor healing of the bones, deformed cleft lips that caused dumbness and a good part of the young population had no teeth. The sanitary conditions were deplorable. The sewers contaminated the water tables that supplied the water supply system. The children were dehydrated and in an advanced stage of intestinal infections caused by worms, to the point of not being able to walk or even sit. Tupper found himself isolated without the resources of a hospital with specialized help, medicines, laboratory facilities or oxygen. He thought he could do much more than simply watch babies dying in the arms of their mothers. Next to him, he carried a Bible and a stethoscope. As a doctor, when nothing else could be done to save lives, Tupper had only to perform the extreme unction to the children and comfort the parents. To solve these serious health problems, he would have to answer two questions; What to do? Where to start?

James Tupper found the answers in the city of Monte Alegre, on the north bank of the Amazon River. He was invited to the house of a humble woman, who lived in a neighboring village, who was crying hysterically. Her five children were with pertussis and, two days earlier, the youngest, a child, had died. She learned that a doctor was nearby and decided to face the forest with her young children in order to find him. Along the way, one of his sons died. Tupper was discontented, for he knew that whooping cough was a serious but rarely fatal disease. In examining the children, he discovered the reason. In addition to whooping cough, they also had measles, pneumonia, malaria and three types of worm infections, which weakened the immune system. He managed to save two of his children, but unfortunately, one died due to violent coughing and respiratory failure. Death moved Tupper. One mother lost three children who could be saved with only three inoculations that would cost less than 10 US cents at the time.

Are You Not Alone Anymore?

The unnecessary deaths of children chased Tupper on his return home soon after being ordained a priest. At the ceremony on December 7, 1969, he chose 'Luke' as his religious name. Saint Luke, the Evangelist is, second, tradition, the author of the Gospel of Luke and of the Acts of the Apostles - the third and fifth books of the New Testament. He is the patron saint of physicians. Called by Paul of "The Beloved Physician" (Colossians 4:14), he may have been one of the first-century Christians who personally lived with the twelve apostles. For fundraising and logistical support for his battle against misery and death, "Father Luke" appealed to his own family and friends. Her sister promised to donate half the salary she received as a lawyer. Elder brother John, a parish priest in Michigan, urged members of the congregation to share their blessings. In Phoenix, the brother of Father Luke, Jerry, also a lawyer, officialized the campaign of Luke, creating the nonprofit organization "Esperança Inc.". Others donated money, services, and medical supplies. When Luke returned to Santarem in April 1970, he was no longer alone in his fight. With two Brazilian teenagers who he trained to help him as nurses, he launched an immunization program. The crew traveled by boat from one community to another. Within five months, 5,000 people were immunized. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief provided resources for the program and the Catholic Medical Mission Board sent vaccines and automatic injection machines, which allowed an operator to inoculate more patients in an hour than one medical team with syringes and needles in one day. Over the next two years, more than 71,000 Amazonian inhabitants would be immunized against the seven major diseases. In September 1971, Luke was accompanied by Sister Regina Wachowski, a Franciscan nun and radiology technician from Chicago who had had experience in X-ray and surgery. Within weeks, Sister Regina entered the forest with her own medical staff. Like Luke, she carried a net and a mosquito netting, living and eating with patients and local people she helped.

In his walks through the forest communities, Luke met an impressive number of children and adults who desperately needed care related to oral hygiene. Most had never seen a toothbrush, let alone a dentist. Many had already lost all their teeth. After working all day as a doctor, Luke now extracted rotting teeth at night with a flashlight or kerosene lamps. As the program progressed from community to community, Luke entered more and more into the forest, where distance and isolation complicated the simpler medical problems. If these people could not get to a hospital, he thought, '' we're going to have to take a hospital to them.''

He reported his concern to the headquarters of Esperança Inc. in Phoenix, United States. In December 1971 the board of directors purchased a seminova ferry for $ 15,000 (fifteen thousand dollars), to be converted into a floating hospital. Luke's passion and intensity inspired an increasing number of Americans to his cause. Win Stewart, a pastor of a Baptist church in Phoenix, stepped down from his pastoral office to dedicate himself to Esperança Inc. full-time. In San Diego, an engineer left the job to oversee the conversion of the boat. Marine and civilian reservists worked weekends and evenings to install the estimated $ 50,000 (fifty thousand dollars) in medical equipment donated to the hospital boat.

"Esperança" for the hopeless

In June 1972, Brother Luke received the visit of Bill Dolan, a young Franciscan medical student whom he met in Illinois. Bill wanted to see what it would be like to work as a medical missionary. And he quickly found out. Luke took him to a community in the forest where, three hours later, they were together, and worked until nightfall. Dolan marveled at the courage and hardness of the people of the Amazon. It was not uncommon for parents to travel on canoe days to get help from their children. "It was enough to make your heart cry," Dolan says. "They are the real heroes."

In October 1972, volunteer workers had helped Luke and Sister Regina build the '' Clinic of the Poor '' in Santarém. The clinic soon became a symbol of hope for those who had learned to live hopelessly. Once Luke was called to a shack where a nine-year-old boy named "lvanildo" was in a coma, surrounded by relatives awaiting his death. Sick three days ago complained of severe headaches and vomiting. After being unconscious and foaming through the mouth, the young man's father had already bought a coffin. Luke, recognizing the symptoms of meningitis, picked up the feverish young man and took him to the clinic. While Sister Regina struggled to contain the boy's fever with alcohol and ice, a catheter was inserted into the boy's throat and medications were administered directly into the stomach. Luke called, by amateur radio, a pediatrician in Los Angeles to advise him on medical treatment. For 48 hours, Sister Regina and Luke watched the boy, bathing him in alcohol to avoid infections due to the extirpation of dozens of worms from his body.

He lived

"I have two mothers," the young man told Sister Regina after he had recovered. "My mother's home and you." On May 10, 1974, the hospital boat, named "Esperança", arrived at the mouth of the Amazon. At the bottom of the 65-foot boat were installed the operating room, clinic and laboratory. Already in the upper were the accommodations for the crew and the medical staff. Surgeons began arriving after a few months of the inaugural voyage of the Hospital Boat "Esperança". The first was Ed Falces, a plastic surgeon from San Francisco, who brought two nurses, an anesthesiologist and a Brazilian resident in plastic surgery to help him. For three weeks the surgical team operated aboard the boat every day, treating 41 illnesses, including cleft lips, crooked legs and twisted limbs. The hospital boat "Esperança" now had its upper deck covered with networks of recovering patients, it was a hospital ship. As the volunteers worked on their "little miracles," Luke tried to find new ways to reach the most needy. He knew that "Esperança" could have a full-time surgeon, and wanted to involve more Brazilians in their health care programs. In 1975 an American volunteer arrived to help him and made his two possible goals. Dr. Harry Owens had worked with the Eskimos in Alaska and served in Brazil on the hospital ship "SS Esperança", and in this period he learned Portuguese. I had some ideas about the formation of Brazilians. Owens agreed to stay for two years. Faced with this, convinced that he was leaving "Esperança" in good hands in 1976, Father Luke began a residency at Ohio State University Hospital to become a surgeon-ophthalmologist. At the end of the year, Dr. Owens signed an agreement between "Esperança" and the Federal University of Pará to intensify health care in the Amazon region. "Esperança" volunteers would teach Brazilians with training in medicine, nursing and nutrition students, motivating them to practice internalization. In 1977, "Esperança" launched a program to train Brazilian residents to become paramedics. After graduating, they would have the mission of providing permanent assistance in their community when Esperança continued to move to another community. Luke used his free time in the state of Ohio, USA, to encourage medical students to give services to the world of the poor. "You have a career ahead of you, which is likely to span 30 years," Luke told the students. "I am asking you to give only one month to your humblest brothers and sisters."

After 10 years of donation to his brothers and sisters in the Amazon, on September 18, 1978, Father Luke died at the age of 45 at Columbus Hospital, a victim of a traffic accident. Luke's entire estate, after the payment of final expenses, amounted to $1,517.18. His mother donated this and the proceeds from his life insurance policy back to Esperança. Although his estate was paltry, he has left a legacy of incomparable value - an example of love and compassion for the poor of the world that has inspired thousands. Luke's dream has lived on for 49 years and and continues to grow daily.


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