‘Doing unto others’ for 24 years
Dr. Biff Cook is a 1967 graduate of Rockdale High School and is the son of B. F. Cook Jr. of Rockdale and the late Mary Cook.
NILTEPEC, MEXICO— In a recovery room with two other patients and no air conditioning, an IV hangs in an open window as Octelina Cruz holds her husband’s hand and grimaces.
A box fan provides what little cooling there is in this Oaxaca state, Mexico, clinic and its nofrills operating room.
The scene of Cruz’s gallbladder surgery has become a familiar one for Longview’s Dr. Byron “Biff” F. Cook III during the past 24 years.
For many Americans, trips to Mexico center on rest and relaxation on a sandy beach. For Cook, 61, the trips aren’t merely about medical missions, but journeys to what have become a second home and an extended family. He has made more than 15 mission trips, performing more than 200 free surgeries.
Cook provided care to Cruz and others during a recent oneweek trip to Santiago Niltepec, a village of about 5,000 people in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is the fifth-largest state in Mexico with about 3.5 million people. Niltepec is an hour-and-a-half-flight south of Mexico City.
Son Chad Cook, who went with his dad, said this trip was his fifth or sixth. Chad accompanied the surgeon for the first time when he was 12.
Dr. Cook’s wife, Suzanne Cook, the couple’s other son, Seth Cook, and his fiance, Erin, went on the most recent trip, along with the couple’s daughter, Courtney Cook Spearman, and her husband, Jim Spearman.
“This is where he is at his best and in his element,” Chad Cook said. “I guess part of it is seeing him work. You don’t see that at home at dinner.”
Filling a need
The clinic is open to everyone and serves a population of 25,000 people within a 50- mile radius.
Many residents walk, ride bicycles or travel by horse or ox carts. Homes in the town are built of concrete for about $10,000 or mud for $3,500, and the average daily wage is $12.
It is common to walk through town and see people watching television in a hammock and fanning themselves to keep the heat at bay.
Dr. John Preskitt, director of oncology surgery for Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, said the clinic provides medical care with “the quality level close to what you see in the states.”
He said the clinic fills an ongoing need for medical care among the area’s residents and could use more physicians with Cook’s dedication.
“I still try to find other doctors to come down. That is still a challenge,” Preskitt said. “You bring someone like Biff, and it’s a passion.”
A general surgeon since the early 1980s, Cook said he became friends with Preskitt while Cook was completing his residency.
Preskitt’s father in-law, Dr. Charles L. Black of Shreveport, started trips to the area in the 1960s. Black traveled to Mexico with his wife, Mercedes Black, and later w ith his daughter, Rebecca Black.
That daughter married Preskitt, and the tradition of medical missionary work continued.
Cook made his first Mexico mission trip in 1986 after Preskitt let him know of a last-minute team cancellation.
On the earlier visits, Cook would spend four days driving, operate for three or four days, then spend four days driving back.
The latest trip required a 2 1/2-hour flight from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to Mexico City on April 10, followed by an hour f light to Huatulco, Mexico.
The last leg of the journey was by bus—a four-hour trek through the mountains.
The next morning, the surgical team was up early to watch the sunrise. The members prayed, ate breakfast, had a devotional and then headed to the Clincia Hospital Dr. Charles Black to start work.
Preskitt said the f irst day always is slower, because the harder cases are taken first. The team of two surgeons and one anesthesiologist performs about 10 surgeries a day.
Preskitt, who wore a green bandana around his neck to collect perspiration, performed the first surgery of the trip—a gallbladder removal on a 32- year old mother of three, Cruz. She said she had the problem for the past five years.
“What I felt was a discomfort when I ate greasy food,” Cruz said. “I decided to have surgery here because I trusted (the doctors) more.”
Cr u z’s hu sba nd, Ma nuel Madena, 40, said the family and others appreciate the services the doctors and other volunteers provide.
“We trust in the Americ doctors because of more advanced training, so we rather come here,” Madena said.
“I am thankful for the doctors as they come to give this service to so many that need it,” he said.
Faith and cancer
This year’s trip had more significance for Cook, who found out in May, 2009, that he had cancer. He received the diagnosis when he returned to the states after becoming ill in Oaxaca on a family vacation to celebrate his 60th birthday.
Cook is undergoing chemotherapy treatment, which is blistering his hands and feet and causing him to walk with a limp.
“My faith in God has changed things in my life,” he said. “I just have today...get up in the morning and do what I have for today, and he puts challenges along the way, and there’s nothing I can’t manage with God’s help.”
Cook said despite the obstacles, he has continued to make the trips.
“I go to Mexico because I get a good feeling—that you want to go back,” he said.
“Talking about faith, my experience has been when there has been a problem, it’s always gotten taken care of,” Cook said.
While leading a devotional one morning, Cook said when he’s in Mexico, he feels more open to God’s message.
“For me, this is a life-changing experience,” he said. “If I come with an open mind and open heart, God talks to me here.”
Cook said when he first started making the trips, he wanted the world to change.
“After a while I realized I needed to change,” he said. “It’s my experience that what I learn here is applicable at home.”
He said he has come to accept the words of evangelist Billy Graham: “We all have a ministry. We are all here to serve in one way or another. We are down here totally dependent on God’s care.”
During the mission’s final night Cook III, was recognized for his decades of service to the people of the Southwest Mexico region.
The village of Niltepec held a fiesta in his honor.
Dr. Santiago Santos Espinosa, a Mexican physician who has worked with Cook, said he expected about 80 people to show up at the event.
But about 200 townspeople, many of whom had been operated on by Cook over the years, and two Mexican congressmen showed up.
Santos said the turnout reflected the grateful attitude of the area’s residents.
“The way I see it, the Lord touches our lives to do this work. This is what life is about, serving,” Santos said. “I want for Biff to feel that we love him, and we want the best for him.”
After staying in Niltepec for two days and helping with 17 surgeries, Cook and his family took about a five-hour bus ride through the mountains to the city of Oaxaca.
There, Cook was awarded honorary citizenship to the state by Gov. Ulíses Ruíz. The citizenship was suggested by Santos because he wanted to do something to honor Cook for his service to the Niltepec community.
“I wanted to give him a little joy, happiness,” Santos said. “I thank God for the way Biff is handling the process of the disease. Right now I see a man who has great peace inside.”
Santos said he prays for Cook every day and appreciates the doctor’s generosity.
“He is always ready to give,” Santos said. “I don’t want him to suffer, but I know that suffering is part of the act we take as Christians.”
Santos is planning the next addition to the clinic where Cook has been making annual medical mission trips for years. That addition is planned to be a small, but comfortable chapel, where doctors, nurses and patients can pray.
Santos said Cook’s trips to Mexico have strengthened his spirit and his faith.
“He found a purpose to live for.” Santos said “From first time I met him to this point, he has a better character. I knew an impulsive Biff. Now I see a very humble and controlled man.”
Santos said Cook wanted to embrace his Mexican family in Niltepec “before God calls him.” He said he had found satisfaction knowing that his friend and comrade in medicine had that opportunity.