Physician couple works 26 years at Indonesian hospital
Bert and Beth Ferrell also did teaching and missionary work
Bert and Beth Ferrell both worked as physicians, which alone would make them stand out among other 87-year-old couples, but what really makes them unique is that they spent a good part of their careers working on the island of Borneo.
They joined a missionary team that operated what they called a "jungle hospital" that grew and expanded into a fully accredited nursing school and a teaching facility for medical school graduates.
In 1953, Bert graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, and Beth graduated from Temple University School of Medicine (one of only six women in her class) in Philadelphia, and they met while doing their internships at Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago.
"I was the only intern for two full floors, and she happened to work next to me in admissions," Bert said. "I was finishing up at 9:30 or 10 p.m., and she was a generous person and offered to help me do the write-ups on each patient that had to be done before I could leave.
"My father was the owner of a Chevrolet agency, so I was the only intern with a car. We would go to the Loop to a restaurant for coffee that had linen tablecloths and talk. We began to get to know each other, and later we became more than just friends."
Beth had taken a year off before starting medical school, and Bert joined the Navy for a year and served as a hospital corpsman before medical school, so even though they were both a year behind their fellow college classmates, they ended up as interns the same year.
They are 19 days apart in age, with Beth born Aug. 25, and Bert born Sept. 14, "and I don't ever call her an old lady," he said.
They made plans for their wedding - Feb. 14, 1954, in Chicago - and invited friends and family members.
"We were trying to save money, so we didn't hire a photographer, and everyone was supposed to bring cameras," Beth said. "But none of them worked, so we have no photos of our wedding."
And that wasn't the only hitch: "The wedding was supposed to be in the Presbyterian Church in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, at 2 p.m.," Beth said. "But my roommate was tied up in surgery, so we postponed the wedding until 4 p.m."
Their honeymoon included a stop in Pittsburg, Pa., where Bert met Beth's parents for the first time.
Back at work, Bert did a one-year residency in general medicine at a hospital in Louisville, Ky., followed by a one-year residency in surgery in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Meanwhile, Beth decided to become a psychiatrist and worked as the house physician for a private psychiatric hospital in Louisville; while there, she became pregnant and gave birth to the couple's daughter, Karen, after they moved to Chattanooga.
"When she left the hospital, it took three people to replace her," Bert said.
At that point in their lives and careers, the Ferrells had to decide where they were going to live and work.
"I had asthma and allergies, and the doctors suggested Oregon, Washington or Alaska," Beth said. "We didn't want to go to Alaska, and Washington would not let us practice without taking a course in hygiene."
Bert continued, "After looking at pollen counts, we decided to come to Oregon."
Beth drove their car with their baby and her dad, and Bert drove Beth's dad's car, while her mom flew out.
While driving around the state to find a place to live and work, they came across a physician in Mount Angel looking for someone to take over his practice," Bert said. "Mount Angel had a centralized telephone operator who could track me down, and within a year we built a building for my office - it was close enough that I could make house calls in the area between Mount Angel and Silverton. I could go 100 miles per hour in the straight stretches of the road."
Their son Stephen was born while they lived in Mount Angel, and with two small children, "I did not practice medicine at that time," said Beth, noting that her college degree was in English literature but she had enough science and math credits to go to medical school. "Mount Angel had a college, and I joined a pre-nursing program there that was affiliated with Providence. I became a professor in the pre-nursing program and taught general science too."
Mount Angel was a Catholic community, and although the Ferrells were not Catholic, they fit right in. "They were the best neighbors we've ever had," Bert said. "One time, we were without power for two weeks, and the neighbors strung a power cord to our freezer. We really settled down and were there 11 years."
While in Mount Angel, the Ferrells were members of a church in Silverton when a doctor/missionary, Wendell Geary, from the Conservative Baptist Foreign Missions Society, came through from Indonesia and talked to the church members about the need for more medical personnel there.
"I said, 'Why don't you come for coffee?'" said Bert, "And that was it. He said he would see 50 to 80 people a day in Indonesia. He had established a clinic there in a shack, and he could get people to give him money and medical instruments, but he couldn't get anyone else to come help him."
The Ferrells decided that was where they were needed and immediately set about preparing to go to Borneo.
"We needed time to put stuff together, and everyone in Mount Angel helped us," Beth said. "They helped us pack 30 drums and 16 crates of medical equipment and supplies from all over the U.S. Everyone who came brought as many supplies as they could.
On our trip there, Karen turned 12, and we ended up staying in Singapore for four months while there was an uprising among headhunters around the hospital in Borneo, Beth said.
We were waiting for our paperwork to come through and wondered why we were being held up, but we were being protected from the massacre."
Bert added, "The Lord intervened and kept us safe."
The long delay also gave them time to practice their Indonesian language skills, and when they finally arrived in Borneo at Sinkawang on the coast, they were ready to go.
(Borneo, which is the third-largest island in the world and the largest island in Asia, is divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, with about 73 percent of the island Indonesian; Indonesia is an archipelago made up of at least 17,000 islands.)
The Ferrells settled in a little village called Serukam on a river. They both practiced medicine but also took on many other jobs.
Beth initially did lab work as she had had training as a laboratory technician and later ran the Indonesian equivalent of 9-1-1 on a shortwave radio, using the Mission Aviation Fellowship's radio connection to send a plane to 30 communities in the area for medical emergencies.
Around the time the Ferrells arrived, a missionary fellowship had built a landing strip for small airplanes like Piper Cubs, and a pilot was stationed at the hospital.
"Many of the problems we could talk them through," Beth said. "But if they needed serious medical intervention, the pilot would go get them and bring them back to the hospital."
After the Ferrells had spent seven years in Indonesia, the government required the hospital to be moved to a large site, where the facility could expand.
Beth became a de facto motel manager, running a motel next to the hospital dubbed "Beth's Motel" for patients and their families who were Westerners. Also, sometimes people would travel for two days on the river to reach the hospital and needed a place to stay until they returned home.
A program was set up to train village people how to do the job of nursing, and they would work half the day at the motel and spend half the day in class. But there were challenges with teaching them basic nursing skills.
"These people told time by the sun, and they had no watches, so we had to teach them to tell time so they could check pulses," Beth said.
Per local custom, the hospital did not provide any meals to patients, so cooking areas with propane stoves were made available, and a local market nearby offered produce and food.
Initially, American doctors came with their wives and children, and later foreign doctors and nurses arived with their kids, so the Ferrells decided that the children needed to be educated. Missionary volunteers from the U.S. provided the personnel to teach the kids, and a dormitory for 12 students was set up.
"Our house was attached to the children's dorm, and we were the house parents for three years," Beth said. "We just all pitched in and developed what we needed."
On one of his furloughs, Bert took an ophthalmology course in London so he could remove cataracts and provide glasses to those who needed them.
As the Ferrells were part of a missionary team, Beth held bible study classes for the hospital personnel, while both she and Bert spoke to groups.
The Ferrells ended up staying a total of 26 years in Borneo, going home for the first time after five years and then returning to the U.S. every three or four years. Meanwhile, their own children went to boarding school in the Philippines for high school before going on to college in the U.S.
"We finally left because of tighter government restrictions on foreign doctors," Beth.
They returned to Oregon, which is where their children were living, and settled in King City.
Both Ferrells have volunteered at the KCCA library since 1994, with Beth helping patrons and Bert "doing odd jobs," Beth said. One of his duties is recycling all the old papers and magazines for the King City Lions Club. They are both active in Grace Point Community Church on nearby Gaarde Street in Tigard, and they lead bible study programs in their home.
The Ferrells have seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren living in Oregon and Washington, and with their 60th anniversary coming up Feb. 14, 2014, you can be sure there will be lots of cameras on hand to record the celebration.