August 21, 2009

Out of Africa…all the way to VUMC

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Robert Whittaker, M.D., right, recovers at Vanderbilt with wife, Annette, and son, Ozioma. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Out of Africa…all the way to VUMC

Physicians at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Nashville community members recently banded together to help a missionary doctor who was abducted and shot in Nigeria.

Robert Whittaker, M.D., has served for more than 25 years at the Nigerian Christian Hospital, which was originally founded by Henry Farrar, a local Nashville doctor, in the 1960s. The West End Church of Christ has supported Whittaker's work at the hospital for many years.

Around 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 3, Whittaker and his wife, Annette, were helping their 16-year-old son pack for school when they heard shots fired outside their home near Aba. A group of Nigerian kidnappers grabbed Whittaker and forced him into the back seat of a car waiting outside.

“Quite suddenly, I didn't hear any shot but I felt a sharp pain in my arm and on the side of the small finger, the pinkie, and I realized I had been hit,” Whittaker recalled.

“I shouted and said, 'Please, I need to go see a doctor,' but they weren't having any of that. Turns out the bullet had traversed the fuel tank before it got to me, which reduced its speed. Otherwise I would have lost my arm.”

Whittaker at the Nigerian Christian Hospital.

Whittaker at the Nigerian Christian Hospital.

With the car drained of gas, Whittaker was put on the back of a motorcycle and driven to a clearing in the middle of a bamboo thicket. He was able to feel a pulse in his hand and knew that if he could avoid infection and negotiate a quick release, there was a good probability his arm could be saved.

The kidnappers let Whittaker lie on a piece of cloth on the ground while they talked with doctors back at the hospital about the ransom.

“More or less, they were quite civil and polite. They fed me,” Whittaker said. “But in the last year or so kidnapping has become so common.”

James Netterville, M.D., a Vanderbilt physician who has volunteered at the Nigerian Christian Hospital, said kidnapping is now seen as a way to make a living in Nigeria.

“Kidnappings in the region around the hospital were rare until the government recently outlawed motorcycle taxis in Aba, a city of almost 1 million people seven miles from the Nigerian Christian Hospital. This effectively put 10,000 motos out of work. The kidnappers said they were mad at their government, and had to make a living somehow,” Netterville said.

Whittaker said an attack like this was always in the back of his mind as he worked at the hospital.

“It's a violent country. Even in 1975 when there was a civil war, the crime isn't anything like it is today. I blame myself for not seeing the signs and taking more action,” he said.

Whittaker grew up in Britain and was reading a church magazine when he came across an article written by Farrar asking for physicians to volunteer at the Nigerian Christian Hospital. Whittaker's first visit lasted two and a half years. He returned to Britain to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, and then took up his full-time post at the hospital.

“We know how dangerous it is, but that is our opportunity. Countries with good security generally have good health care, too. This is our opportunity to come in and show compassion for the sick,” Whittaker said.

While in captivity, Whittaker said he had three concerns.

“One, I was thinking I would die because once they've got the money they can shoot me. Second thing was my arm would be removed. Third thing was that if they killed me I would lose my family, and I thought it was too early for my son to have to go without a dad and my wife was too young to lose her husband,” he said.

Luckily, none of those fears were realized. After 46 hours of negotiating a ransom, Whittaker was returned to the hospital. While he was in surgery to clean the wound and remove shattered bone fragments, Farrar and Netterville made arrangements for Whittaker and his family to fly to Nashville for further orthopaedic surgery with Jeff Watson, M.D.

Whittaker now has two plates and 27 screws in his upper arm, and is expected to regain partial function of his hand after extensive physical therapy in the coming months.

Whittaker said he is “slightly embarrassed” at the outpouring of support from VUMC, West End Church of Christ and others in Nashville, but he has learned from the ordeal.

“We have to believe that in the end, everything will be all right, though the road might be rough,” he said. “My task is to be a servant, not chief. We doctors have a problem with that because we're supposed to be in charge, but the scripture says to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”