NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Medical missionary Dr. Robert Whittaker sat beside the hospital bed Tuesday morning, his Bible open.
But the physician was not counseling patients — he was the patient.
Shot in the back of his left arm as four young men kidnapped him last week from his home on the compound of Nigerian Christian Hospital, Whittaker was recovering from surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center. The Welsh-born doctor has served in the mission hospital near the Nigerian city of Aba for 25 years, his work supported by Nashville’s West End Church of Christ
During the Vanderbilt procedure, Dr. Jeff Watson, a specialist in handand arm reconstructive surgery, inserted a stainless steel plate inWhittaker’s arm between the elbow and shoulder, according to JimNetterville, a Vanderbilt surgeon who has served on short-term medicalmissions at Nigerian Christian Hospital. The plate will steady the boneas pieces left fragmented by an entering bullet fuse themselves backtogether.
Dr. Bruce Shack, chairman of plastic surgery at Vanderbilt, alsotreated the missionary’s wife, Annette Whittaker, on Tuesday morning,Netterville said. Shack extracted a bullet fragment embedded abouttwo-and-a-half inches deep in the thigh. Annette was wounded whenassailants fired downward at the family’s tile floor during thekidnapping.
As a medical tech changed his IV, Whittaker talked about the abduction and reflected on the event from the standpoint of faith.
The ordeal began when four men entered his home about 11 p.m. onSunday, Aug. 2. He said the young kidnappers — their ages ranging from17 to 25, he estimated — ordered him to lie down in the back seat of aMercedes sedan as they took him.
The doctor felt a “sudden sting,” he said, his arm suddenly twistingout of shape. A stray bullet had pierced the rear of the car,puncturing the fuel tank and penetrating his arm. The kidnappers didnot intend to shoot him, he said. In fact, they apologized for hurtinghim.
After they wounded him, the kidnappers decided to put him in the trunk.But as the “Keystone cops” — Whittaker’s quip for his awkwardassailants — couldn’t open the trunk, they let him stay in the backseat, this time sitting up and able to see exactly where the car wasgoing. When the Mercedes ran out of gas from the accidental hole in thefuel tank, the kidnappers got out and pushed, one leaning inside tosteer as Whittaker stayed in the back.
The group eventually arrived at their destination — a bamboo thicketwith a hollow space in the middle only seven or eight miles away fromthe doctor’s home. It was there that Whittaker waited two days ashospital personnel helped negotiate his release. Inside the thicket,Whittaker rested on top of a long Nigerian shirt provided by thekidnappers, who also served him three meals.
“I was totally relaxed,” Whittaker said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve alwaysbelieved in God. I believe this world is a transient place.’ There wasno need to worry. I just complied with whatever they asked me to do.”
With kidnappings a lucrative venture on the rise in Nigeria, Whittakerknew he could be a victim. “You’ve finally come at last for me,” herecalled thinking, adding that he had been robbed at gunpoint twice.
The doctor was grateful that his wound was from a stray shot instead ofa direct one, underscoring the lethal power of the AK-47, a rapid-firerifle of standard military issue in the former Soviet Union and itsallies during the Cold War.
“These young men … have these powerful weapons, and no wisdom to go with it,” Whittaker said. “They’re deadly.”
Whittaker conversed with his captors, whom he described as desperateyoung people without opportunity. One, for example, had trained as awelder but as the child of a single parent didn’t have money forwelding equipment.
Whittaker fears Christians have failed to communicate the trueimplications of the gospel to people. “They don’t really perceive Jesusas a solution to their problems. Christianity is just a … safetypolicy, insurance,” he said.
As Whittaker talked with his captors, Christians in Nigeria, the UnitedStates and other nations around the globe prayed for his safety. TheNigerian Christian Hospital staff negotiated for his release.
After nearly 48 hours as a hostage, Whittaker became a patient at thehospital where he’s served as a physician for 25 years. Dr. BrianCamazine, a surgeon from Texas working at the hospital, cared forWhittaker and decided when his fellow doctor was stable enough for thetrip to Nashville.
Before he left Nigeria, Whittaker assured his friends and colleagues he would return.
“I told them I didn’t know when it would be,” he said. But theBritish-born doctor became teary-eyed as he thought about the missionhe left behind. In Africa, he explained, one way missionaries showtheir love is by sacrificially toughing out difficult times with thepeople to whom God has sent them.
“Whatever happens, you never leave them, you never go from thempermanently,” Whittaker said. With the bullet severing a key nerve inhis arm and likely limiting his ability to do some surgical procedures,the doctor wondered if his role might change to allow more training ofnew physicians.
Despite the suffering, Whittaker said he sees God’s hand at work.
“I’ve been saved. … I could have died so easily,” he said.
“We can’t tie God down to our expectations,” he added. “He’s still there, and he’s still caring for me.” Contributions for the Whittakers
and letters of encouragement may be sent to:
International Health Care Foundation
102 N. Locust,
Searcy, AR 72143
Please note “Whittaker Fund” on checks.
Donate via PayPal at www.ihcf.net