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Dying Paraguay mission hospital is transformed, given new life

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Paraguay Baptist clinics treat, minister to poor

Baptist hospital implants new heart, new hope

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay (BP) — Marlin Harris’ mission was clear in 1988 when he arrived in Paraguay as a Southern Baptist missionary: guide the transition of the mission hospital into a Paraguayan-run Baptist institution.

But during one of Harris’ first meetings with the Paraguayan Baptist leaders, a convention leader stood and said, “There’s an elephant in this room, and that is that you all are trying to give to us the Baptist hospital. And it’s in such bad shape, we don’t want it.”

“Man,” Harris realized, “we’ve got a long way to go here.”

Harris, who had helped administer hospitals in Mississippi and Texas, assessed the hospital’s needs. The accounting system needed to be completely reworked for financial soundness. But more importantly, the administration needed to be reorganized to involve the Paraguayans more in management.

Harris identified key leaders with the conceptual ability and the maturity to handle more responsibility, he said, but realized he needed one more person in place.

A contact put Harris in touch with an Argentine pastor’s son named Ernesto Simari, a solid businessman who wanted to work in ministry. Harris hired Simari as his assistant.

“It was an adventure of faith, knowing that I was answering a call from God,” Simari said. “We started working under a participatory leadership, and we defined the vision and the mission of the hospital, which gave us a clear view of where we needed to go.”

Shortly after Simari’s arrival, Harris and his family returned to the United States to care for Harris’ ill mother. The hospital was left in the care of Simari and the new Paraguayan management. It was almost a year before Harris was able to return.

“I remember when I walked [back] into the hospital,” Harris says. “I could just feel things were different. … They were able to move forward.”

The struggling mission hospital had transformed into a full medical center with a reputation for excellent medical care and fair business dealings. It was this credibility that inspired a group of local medical professionals from non-evangelical institutions to approach Harris with an idea.

“They said, ‘We want to start a heart institute, and we don’t feel like any other institution in the city could pull it off except this institution,'” Harris says.

Harris and Simari had not considered taking the medical center in such a specialized direction, but they couldn’t ignore the significance of the request.

To generate the revenue needed for financial stability, the medical center already was building 20 private patient rooms. Creating a heart institute meant taking on an additional million-dollar project.

“It was risky at the time,” Harris said. “But it was just a decision of faith, and we felt like God wanted us to do it.”

A year after its creation, the heart institute performed Paraguay’s first successful heart transplant in 1996. The history-making procedure brought unprecedented publicity to the medical center — and also led the patient to Christ.

Almost everyone on the hospital staff has a story to share about patients meeting Jesus at the medical center.

Chaplains comprise a branch of the medical center’s administrative structure. Six full-time chaplains and four medical chaplains maintain a 24-hour presence at the hospital to provide counseling for patients’ families and ensure that every patient has the opportunity to hear the Gospel.

“About 16,000 patients a month walk through the hospital,” Harris said. “That’s just a tremendous opportunity for evangelism and to share the Gospel. And usually those people are in a very vulnerable moment where they really need to hear something from the Lord.”

The medical center ensures this legacy of medical ministry will continue through the Baptist Medical Center University. At a campus adjacent to the hospital, more than 900 students earn degrees in nursing, occupational therapy, family medicine, mental health, clinical pastoral education, university teaching and hospital administration. But an added feature of the university is the spiritual training it provides all the students.

“I think that the biggest legacy I can leave is the forming of men and women that are competent, compassionate and committed to the institution,” says Simari, now the general director of the medical center. “[They] allow us to undertake great things for God.”

Harris left the field in late 1998, and now teaches Spanish at an Alabama high school. Upon retiring, he set up the Paraguay Baptist Medical Center Foundation, which has raised close to $800,000 to support the hospital and fund university scholarships. The hospital is financially sound, but the foundation keeps Harris connected to the institution where he invested two decades of his life.

The medical center has not forgotten him.

“For the Baptist hospital, the transition has been gradual and effective to such a level that today we can see a self-sufficient hospital, thanks to that gradual transition of forming professionals,” says the Rev. Odenir Figueiredo, the university chaplain. “It was done in the right length of time.”

In similar cases in other countries, transitions rarely have been successful. But in the case of the Baptist Medical Center of Paraguay, the transition not only worked, but also brought unexpected benefits. The medical center is now thriving and furthering the Gospel through the medical care it provides.

“Since I left in ’98, the leadership has been really all Paraguayan Baptists,” Harris says. “It has given the nationals a greater sense of identity — that it’s their work. They’re not dependent on American missionaries anymore.”

In 2011, Harris returned to Paraguay to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial with his friends at the medical center. It was a time for everyone who had been through the transition to reflect on the work God had done there — and continues to do today.

“The Baptist Medical Center exists so that we can reach people and tell them about Jesus,” Figueiredo says. “And I think we have achieved this basic principle left by the missionaries.”
Tristan Taylor served as an International Mission Board writer in the Americas. Read more stories about what God is doing among the peoples of the Americas here. Click here to read how the Paraguayan Baptist Medical Center Foundation continues to support the hospital. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Tristan Taylor