Some people are called and never hear it. But not Bill Ragon, a CRNA who lives and works in Jackson, TN. Bill believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that his devotion to caring for people in the most austere conditions around the world is the result of him being called to alter the course of his life not once, but twice. Now 69, Bill couldn’t be happier that he was listening when the calls came.
Currently employed at a 700-bed, Level 2 trauma center that provides healthcare services for a population of more than 1 million Tennesseans, Bill and his 70 fellow CRNAs provide anesthesia care for orthopedic procedures, general surgery, and everything in between.
But becoming a healthcare provider wasn’t exactly on Bill’s mind the day he parachuted out of a plane during Green Beret training in the early ‘70s.
“My Green Beret team’s medic was hurt during a parachute jump, and that’s what started it all for me,” Bill recalled. “About 15 of us were jumping that day, including two medics, into a location for a two-week training mission. One of the medics got hung up in a tree, and when he cut himself loose, he fell and broke his ankle. He convulsed and we thought he might die. I decided right then and there I wanted to become a medic so I could have more control over situations like that.
“I wound up serving as a Green Beret medic from 1972-75, after the Vietnam pull out,” he said. “During our medic training I was intrigued when we put goats to sleep with ether before they were operated on. Then before I got out of the service, I met with a CRNA who told me about his career. He was a big motivator—said it was a great career, that CRNAs were ‘under the radar.’ Not anymore, though—that’s for sure.” Bill earned his nurse anesthesia diploma from the University of Tennessee Martin and has spent his entire career paying forward what that military CRNA did for him—inspiring nurses who are considering a career in anesthesia and encouraging SRNAs who are already in the pipeline.
The austere conditions he experienced during his military training prepared him well for the next time he heeded the call.
“My interest in medical missions truly started after I renewed my faith,” Bill said. That was in 1985, when he was in his early 30s. He’d been practicing as a CRNA for three years. “I woke up one day and just felt I had everything material I could want. I told my wife, ‘Jayne, this is not what life is all about.’ I felt called by God to care for the less fortunate.”
To further drive home the point, Bill’s brother, a physician, told him that one of the greatest needs on mission trips was anesthesia providers. His decision was made.
“CRNAs are blessed with so much, yet there are people all over the world who desperately need care,” he said. “In mission work, the appreciation these people express for what we are able to provide them is priceless.”
Bill has participated in medical missions to Jamaica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Iraq, and Uganda. He tries to go once per year. Missions might be planned well in advance, or they might be spontaneous, such as the missions he goes on as part of the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) for Samaritans First. Team members need to be able to deploy within 24 hours. Bill vividly remembers traveling to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. Team members arrived within a few days for a 21-day mission and wound up staying much longer.
Depending on where a trip takes him, Bill provides anesthesia for general medical, surgical and dental cases, but also for Level 1 trauma caused by natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake or war-related injuries like those incurred by refugees fleeing ISIS in Iraq.
He vividly recalls a mission to Iraq for Samaritans First that was scheduled for the first week of 2017. “God said to me, ‘Bill, that’s your trip,’ but things were getting dangerous in Iraq and the 21-day mission was pushed to February,” Bill said. “So I asked my son, who’s a Navy Seal, to find out what was going on in Iraq—see how safe the trip would be. One of his contacts told him what I should expect, but my son told him ‘My Daddy will go anyway.’ He was right.
“The Iraq trip wound up being one of the best things I ever did, and one of the worst,” Bill remembers. “Seventy percent of the patients we cared for were women, children, and the elderly—all victims of ISIS.” Bill readily admits struggling with some degree of PTSD from witnessing the aftermath of “truly evil” acts, such as drones being used to drop grenades on playgrounds.
Bill’s wife, Jayne, is one of his biggest supporters. “I was stationed in Iraq outside of Mosul,” Bill said, “and someone asked Jayne, ‘How can you let your husband go and put himself in harm’s way like that?’ She responded, ‘I’m not going to be that wife who stands between my husband and his call from God.’”
But Bill’s memory is also filled with profoundly special experiences as well. One in particular was captured in a photo Bill keeps—an image of himself cradling a little girl in his arms in a medical tent in Haiti. Her legs had been horribly burned by hot soup that had accidentally been spilled on her, and Bill was part of the team that debrided her wounds and grafted skin to her legs.
Upcoming for Bill are a mission to the Honduras in February and a staged repair cleft palate trip to South Sudan in March. He’s looking forward to both of them, despite a broken ankle he suffered last October that’s taking its sweet time to heal. He doesn’t anticipate that either trip will be jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What would Bill tell someone who is giving consideration to participating on a medical mission trip? He answered with a story about the time he was speaking with a group of SRNAs about the importance of mission trips and how CRNAs need to “get out, go, and do this work.” After telling them to think about it in the context of what their legacies will be, one SRNA left him speechless when she told him that his legacy was “leaving a trail of faithfulness behind him.”
The many people he’s cared for around the world just might agree.