The Change Makers


East Tennesseans are making waves through medical missions both here and abroad

East Tennessee is full of volunteers and heroes. Some work 20 minutes away at a hyper-local nonprofit where people come to them for services. Others board planes to travel across the country and the world to the communities most in need of assistance. All around us is a cast of hundreds who aren’t out for all they can get—they’re out for all they can give.

A Mission to Serve

East Tennessee Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Paul Naylor, founder of Knoxville Medical Mission Foundation, has been to Guatemala 24 times since the year 2000. 

“We’re a surgical mission,” he says. “In the late 90s, a few of us were sitting around and I said, ‘We should go somewhere.’ There happened to be a nurse at Parkwest from Guatemala, so we decided to go there.”

They contacted a Catholic church that had had an orphanage associated with it and talked to the priest. Soon the team made its way to South America to perform medical procedures. 

Their first operating rooms were old rooms in the church, but they needed better facilities. Over the 24 years that Knoxville Medical Mission Foundation has been going, things have changed. 

“The church has a hospital associated with it,” Naylor says. “The rooms are no longer rudimentary. We have the best operating rooms in the country. We can operate on club feet, do artificial knees and shoulders, hip surgery. We do a lot of adult foot repairs and general surgery cases like hernias and gall bladders, and urological cases like kidney stones and hysterectomies.” 

Naylor’s team headed back to South America this past January. The plan? A whopping 145 surgeries in 12 days. 

“Our team will include 54 people, most from Knoxville,” Naylor said before the trip. “I have to recruit the surgeons. This year we will have 11, about a third from outside the Knoxville area.” 

The group has a fundraiser to defray travel costs and gets about 90 percent of all the supplies, such as artificial knees and shoulders rods and plates, donated through grants. Locally, DeRoyal gives Knoxville Medical Mission Foundation packets containing all the things they need for the operating rooms.

Naylor served at Tennessee Orthopedic Clinic at Parkwest Hospital for 33 years and is now the chief medical officer for a medical supply company. He also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and gives talks all over the country about avoiding infections during surgery.

Corners of the World

As a contractor, Mark Scarbrough with Water’s Edge Medical Ministry routinely coordinates building projects—but coordinating medical missions is the job that satisfies him the most.

“I’m not a doctor,” he says. “I’m a Christ follower and deeply spiritual.” The idea for the organization, in particular the logo, came to him back in 2014, and he’s since focused on ministry that “would bring honor and glory to God.”

The organization supports medical, dental, optical, and sports development in overseas communities in need, including some in Africa. When not leading missions, you can find Scarbrough arranging for the donation of supplies, equipment, and volunteers to support the overseas missions. Almost all of the volunteers are from right here in East Tennessee.

“We’ve taken doctors and nurses and men, women and college-aged people from here to Africa,” he says. “We’ve connected with different doctors from different countries and our volunteers work in those countries under doctors’ supervision.”

Scarbrough even coordinates efforts with other organizations, such as Air Mobile Ministries which creates backpack size water purifiers, to maximize impact.

Water’s Edge has even brought a patient back here to help. In 2004, the group helped bring a patient from Zambia here for surgery. The patient later returned for two additional surgeries over the course of several years.

Photo courtesy of InterFaith Health Clinic.

Faithful Servants

Providing medical, dental and mental healthcare locally is InterFaith Health Center. “When our patients leave, we really expect them to leave with hope,” says Melissa Knight, executive director. “We want to empower our patients to thrive, not just survive.” 

Knight says InterFaith looks out for the people who fall through the cracks. The mission is to provide comprehensive, affordable medical, dental and mental healthcare to the uninsured by offering care on a sliding scale. The center doesn’t bill for any insurance, but is 100 percent for the uninsured and emphasizes comprehensive, affordable care.

“We are not a walk-in clinic,” Knight says. “We have a screening tool on our website. Because we want to be people’s medical home, our application is several pages long. If people qualify, we encourage them to walk in and fill out an application or fill it out online. You can also call to see if you qualify.” 

Like the traditional primary care practice or pediatrician, InterFaith treats all types of chronic and acute illnesses and also offers tests such as pap smears, mammograms, cholesterol checks, blood and urine tests, and most types of X-rays on site. They have a full-time staff for mental health services, the bulk of which is the hour-long one-on-one session. The dental side sees almost as many patients as the medical side, providing crowns, fillings, partials, cleanings, extractions, dentures on a case-by-case basis, and more.

“I feel so blessed that God called me to come here 30 years ago,” Knight says. “I feel blessed to be able to give a hand up to people who are working so hard to take care of themselves and their families. A huge percentage of our patient population is from the service industry. They’re the people who take care of you. They’re the ones who will serve you dinner tonight or change the oil in your car or cut your hair. We have always been committed to expanding our services. We’ve made it our mission for the next year or two years to provide more services for our patients.”

Teaching Compassion

Medical residents are often looking to serve and hone their craft. And alongside them are physicians doing double-duty: attending to patients and passing along their knowledge. 

For Dr. Stephanie Cross and Dr. Paige Johnson, both OB-GYNs who work at UT’s Graduate School of Medicine, it has been meaningful work to serve alongside their students in international mission trips.

“There are a lot of residency programs that offer electives…but we thought, what if we could offer [mission work] to each of our residents when they’re in their third or fourth year and are surgically adept at that point?” Cross says they pondered. 

The program started with Dr. Robert Elder about a decade ago, but since then so many other physicians in the department have continued the important work with Health Talents International.

“These patients wait for years for this,” Cross says. “For a resident and for me, it’s great surgical exposure, but I think the more important thing for residents is…it’s a great grounding experience for them.”

Typically, a physician brings one resident with them in the program, Johnson says, those hours counting toward the resident’s graduation.

“What you have available is somewhat limited. You definitely have to rely on your diagnostic skills,” she says. “One of the things that is beautiful about it is just the way different medical professionals interact to make the best decisions we can for the patients that we serve.”

Photo courtesy of Remote Area Medical.

Remote Area Medical

Headquartered in Rockford, Remote Area Medical (RAM) was launched by the late Stan Brock in 1985 when he was living among the Wapishana Indians in Guyana, South America. Brock witnessed simple illnesses to more advanced ones take over whole tribes. He vowed to find an answer. 

“I realized that there were people like the Wapishanas that didn’t have access to healthcare or couldn’t afford it,” Brock told Cityview back in 2017. “The purpose of the organization was to go into third world countries…with aid.” Six years later, he brought the mission close to home. Brock passed away in 2018, but his legacy continued.

As of this past September, RAM has operated nearly 1,300 expeditions, as they call them‚ in 30 countries, says Chris Cannon, marketing manager at the organization. “We operate on a community host group model and people reach out to us to host a clinic,” he says. “It’s about an 18-month process to find volunteers and donors in an area.”

“We travel to the country and set up for the weekend providing medical, dental and vision care in different places…Every patient gets medical care and we ask patients to pick between vision and dental, as those are typically our most requested services,” Cannon says. “We do eye exams and take trucks to grind the lenses, so you can walk out with glasses free of charge. For dental, we offer cleanings, fillings, extractions and X-rays. We can do a limited number of dentures, depending on where we are. They are free to the patients. At the Knoxville clinic, we open on Friday mornings. We typically offer dentures and we usually have people in the parking lot on Wednesday evening to be sure they get a spot.” 

RAM continues to grow. Last year, they did more than 80 clinics, planning even more this year with about 60 staff. Since 1985, more than 196,000 volunteers have come together to put on clinics.

Securing One Another

“My little boy walked up to me one day on the football field and said, ‘Dad, feel my chest,’” says Mark Slaughter. Next thing he knew, his 11-year-old son was in heart surgery. “Luke flatlined and I made a deal with God. I promised God I’d do something with my life that had purpose. At the time, I was working with a medical device manufacturer. I quit my job within 90 days and thought I’d be in full-time mission work or in a children’s hospital.” 

But a radical idea redirected Slaughter’s path. He had already been working in the industry, but thought what if instead of keeping the profit every time he sold equipment, he donated it to medical missions? He went for it, launching On-Belay Medical.

Slaughter named the company for the hiking method of being connected by ropes. He based the company on the Biblical principle of giving and chose the goal of funding free medical care.

“In Luke 6:38 it says very clearly ‘Give and it shall be given to you,’ he says. “It doesn’t say ‘hope so.’ I had this crazy idea to quit my job and start a company with no money and no customers with the business plan of giving away all our profit.”

In 2014, Slaughter donated a significant portion of the company’s ownership to the National Christian Foundation, creating a powerful “monthly giving machine” to support nonprofits around the world. And in 2016, he launched an international medical missions team committed to the advancement of spine care in Uganda.

Photo courtesy of Dr. John Little.

Caring for Global Neighbors

About 10 years ago, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital otolaryngologist Dr. John Little was searching for an opportunity to help and found one in Guatemala with Health Talents International. He has made six or seven trips since then to do an intensive surgery week. He has even taken his own children with him on the trips. 

Health Talents, which has been in Guatemala for 50 years, has a group of about 60 surgeons, nursing students, physician’s assistant students, and academic nurses, primarily from Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.

“We all go down and do our specialties, but the continuity of the mission has been amazing. They typically have a week each month for surgery clinics. It’s divided up through the year for different specialties. They have patients ready. We get there Sunday midday and drive three hours. We throw stuff in the room and we start seeing patients before dinner…We’ll do 70-90 surgeries. It’s really a very well-done program.”

Procedures include hernia repairs, thyroidectomies and removing masses. Little says cooking in Guatemala is done in the home with no ventilation, so people breathe in wood smoke, resulting in a lot of nasal polyps. 

“We typically pray with them before they go back for their surgery. Once my son asked if he could pray, and I said, ‘Certainly.’ He said the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. It was a great father-son moment. It was one of those times that makes your heart smile. My children have all gone into healthcare, not because of me, but because of Guatemala. They all just got the bug. It’s easy for that to happen because you can see how meaningful it is to those people.”

Little recently became involved with another mission in Ghana, helping facilitate an opportunity to deliver anesthesia machines from Knoxville. 

Serving Needs

East Knox Free Medical Clinic is a stopgap to medical care as we see patients only on non-holiday Monday afternoons,” says Janet L. Purkey, M.D. “We provide care for the uninsured. Our patients receive most medications and lab testing at no charge to them.” 

The clinic operates within Magnolia Avenue Methodist Church where volunteer health providers, many of whom are retired nurses, routinely see people with hypertension and diabetes, but do their best to address whatever concern is presented, Purkey says.

“We’re able to pay for the routine medications and lab because of generous donations from donors in our community. It’s a miracle, from my viewpoint.”

Working for almost two years before launching in 2013, the board of directors who founded East Knox Free Medical Clinic patterned it after similar organizations in Oak Ridge and Hilton Head. 

“We offer free medical care. It’s all volunteer from our physicians, nurses, social service folk, and student volunteers,” Purkey says. 

Retired doctors like Dale Betterton came running after Covid. His wife Dorothy Davison, family nurse practitioner, came, too. She serves now as clinic manager. Even retired and active physicians from out of area, like Dr. Sharon Smith, came to help. Alongside them are medical students, mostly from UTK but also from elsewhere, honing their skills while serving in the process. 

“Being at (clinic) on a Monday afternoon is one of the most fulfilling parts of my practice of medicine,” Purkey says. “It is an amazing place to be.”

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