Healing Journeys

Dr. John Young presses a stethoscope on the chest of a young Guatemalan girl during a routine exam

Global health

Dr. John Young performs a physical exam on a young Guatemalan girl.


n Guatemala, girls born with cleft lips or palates rarely become brides.

“It puts a cleft in your life — you can’t get married,” said Dr. John Young, explaining that Guatemalans consider the condition a curse from God. “But once repaired, you are looked upon as special — that God has favored you — so it’s really a critical surgery there.

Young and his wife, Dianne, a nurse practitioner, visited Quinnipiac in October to share stories with students and faculty about their 25 years of short-term mission work bringing health care to impoverished countries. They showed slides of two young Guatemalan sisters grateful for the cleft palate surgery they received on one of the couple’s medical trips. They have been to Guatemala 20 times and also to Thailand, Africa and Jamaica.

Their first trip changed their lives forever, and they want Quinnipiac students to also experience what they call the “ecstasy of healing.” The couple helped start the “Reverence for Life” endowment fund at the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Quinnipiac University to expand global outreach opportunities for students.

Schweitzer was a physician and theologian who founded a hospital in 1913 in Lambaréné, Gabon, Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his work. He is also one of John’s heroes.

“We are here to give honor to Schweitzer’s ethic — reverence for life — which was evident in all he did,” said John, a family physician in Bakersfield, California, since 1980. HELPS International, a nonprofit that provides medical, educational, community development and more to help alleviate poverty in Latin America and other developing regions, had heard that the Youngs had been to Jamaica for medical missions and contacted John to see if he’d be willing to go to Guatemala. After encouragement from Dianne, he said yes.


John and Diane Young pictured in the middle of a discussion on the Mount Carmel Campus quad

Medical missionaries

Dr. John Young and his wife, Dianne, outside the Center for Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. They shared their medical missionary work with faculty and students in October.

He took on the role of team leader for a number of years, recruiting team members from many disciplines. He explained that a typical team consists of general, plastic, ENT, or gynecological surgeons, primary care doctors, dentists, ophthalmologists, nurses and an assemblage of cooks and “MacGyvers” who repair and devise just about anything the teams need. On the Bakersfield teams, a prosthetic team also has gone several times. The team leader is responsible for recruiting personnel and gathering supplies so the team runs productively and efficiently. “It’s often miraculous to see everything fall into place,” he said.

Some of the more common surgeries — in addition to cleft palates — include cataracts, gallbladders, tonsils and hernias. John said the surgical facilities can resemble sets from the TV show “M*A*S*H.” Primary care doctors play a key role in screening surgical patients to make sure they are low-risk candidates for surgery.

“We can’t have any patient die, or the team might not be invited back to their community,” he said, adding that there is a very spiritual component to what they do. “The people we help feel like we are sent from God.”

The Youngs say the trips challenge participants with a blend of uncertainty, adventure, anxiety and creativity. “You discover things about yourself and other people,” John said. It’s also a way for the couple to live a favorite Bible verse: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Dianne has been to Africa eight times. She has traveled to Africa, Guatemala and Thailand this year alone. In Tanzania, she worked with children in several compassion centers. In Guatemala, she worked with a medical team and in Thailand, she helped with construction of a new church building. Her inspiration is Mother Teresa. “She treated each person she met as though they were Jesus,” Dianne said.

President Judy Olian attended the Youngs’ presentation and called them role models who have incorporated Schweitzer’s values into their lives. “We live in a world of privilege, and we aspire to be global change agents at Quinnipiac and agitators for good — it’s part of our strategic plan,” she said.

Thanks to the Youngs’ gift, students will have the opportunity to engage in the global community as they develop what she called “global brain” and hopefully imbue that changed world view into the rest of their lives. She pointed out that 40 students and faculty members were able to interact with Nobel Laureates recently at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Mérida, Mexico, thanks in part to the Youngs’ gift.

Dianne feels blessed to have had the chance to make a difference in the health of so many people over the years. “And I hope we can spark some interest in others to go and see how big of a difference the touch of a hand can make.” All four of their children have gone on a trip, and they are hoping their 12 grandchildren will want to get involved some day.

She recalled the story of a young man in a car accident who suffered compound fractures in his leg. “The doctors did the best they could, but he was not healing, and they thought they would have to amputate his leg.” Fortunately, an orthopedist and plastic surgeon were on the team during that trip, and they did more surgery and skin grafting and were able to save both his leg and his life, she said.

Another success story involved a 16-year-old who came to their clinic with a large dermoid ovarian cyst. “It was so large that she looked six months pregnant, and we got her on the operating schedule the same day. Now she can marry and have children,” Dianne said with a smile.

And then there are the people they cannot help, such as the woman Dianne saw in Tanzania with rheumatoid arthritis in her knees, hip, elbows and hands. “I had limited resources. It was very sad, I prayed with her, then sent her on her way. Sometimes we want to do more, but we can’t.”

The retired nurse sometimes travels without her husband. She emphasized that one needn’t have a medical background to be of service. She was part of a 60-woman construction team in South Africa that built two homes, one of which was given to one of the local women who cooked for them on that trip.

“I hope we can spark some interest in others to go and see how big of a difference the touch of a hand can make.”
Dianne Young

Besides his MD degree, John holds a master’s in counseling as well as in theology, a subject in which Schweitzer held a doctorate. Music was a passion for Schweitzer, something John shares with him. Schweitzer’s wife, Helene, was a nurse, like Dianne.

John described Schweitzer as deliberate in what he did, and hardworking. “He saw patients in the morning, did construction in the afternoon, and did his writing and music at night.” One of John’s favorite Schweitzer quotes goes like this: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but this I do know; the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who will have sought for and found a way to serve.”

They want to see Albert Schweitzer’s legacy go on. For John, reverence for life comes with his line of work. Doctors experience this at various times — whether it’s that moment shocking a heart back to life after coming off a triple bypass and seeing it beat again or witnessing the birth of a baby. “Our culture needs to recapture this respect and reverence for one another and the value of all life,” he said.

Dianne has had two surgeries to replace a defective heart valve. Infections acquired here or abroad could be life-threatening, but she doesn’t worry about it. “I just believe that God will protect me because I am doing his work, and if I do die, what better way than in serving other people?”

“She’s the one with the faith. I’m the one who makes the lists,” John joked.

At first, John said he was not thrilled about simply handing out pain relievers and vitamins, but then he came to a realization: “It’s one thing to give Advil that lasts 4 to 6 hours, but if you give it with love, it might last forever. And it does two other things — people feel like they haven’t been forgotten, and also it gives them hope. Some have had to wait a year to get surgery they needed because the schedule was full. They came back the next year.”

Dianne has enjoyed the people she met in Africa — “their big hearts, their openness.” Her African trips have taken her to Kenya, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau.

“When we show up, they line up in the streets,” she said, noting that diabetes and high blood pressure are prevalent in Africa. “There is some health insurance, but if you cannot pay for it, there is no safety valve, no urgent care services, and you don’t get care.”

The Youngs are traveling to Guatemala in 2020 and have the chance to go to Colombia in March. They plan to continue working with Quinnipiac to ensure that students experience the joy of giving. John said he yearns to hear their stories.

More than 200 students have participated in ASI-sponsored trips over the past 20 years. “Thanks to generous gifts by caring people, like the Youngs, future generations of students will be able to explore the intersection of health and the environment and experience the meaning of reverence for life,” said Sean Duffy, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute.

Duffy is leading a student trip to Guatemala in March focused on sustainable living and agriculture. “We will be partnering with a local organization that does community work around public health, food security and ecological restoration, working with coffee farmers and communities to increase local options for growing food, diversifying plantings, and building soil health and water management,” he said.

In August, he and students will head to Peru to work with the Quechua communities in the high Andean region around the Sacred Valley to restore native species of trees and bushes to combat the effects of climate change in that region. The following year, India will be among the destinations when the ASI partners with a local biodiversity organization that does Sea Turtle conservation projects and rescues/rehabilitates temple elephants.

Wherever they go, the Youngs look upon their trips as “soul safaris.” “It’s a search for hope and faith to find out why we’re here,” John said.