Marathon man encourages healing

Glenn Geelhoed ’64


Spring 2011

Glenn Geelhoed

Glenn Geelhoed

Coming home to his alma mater as a featured speaker in Calvin’s January Series, Glenn Geelhoed ’64 challenged his audience to join him in a new career. 

“Join me on a mission,” he said. “Consider a career in healing, and by that I mean moving the lowercase ‘h’ to an uppercase ‘H.’” 

Since 1966, Geelhoed, a professor of surgery at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., has spent three to six months every year treating patients and training caregivers all over the world, often taking other doctors and medical students with him to inspire them to continue the work. To date, he has led more than 200 health care missions to serve the underserved on virtually every continent, including international hot spots such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Geelhoed has been honored by many organizations for his work, including the 2009 Volunteerism Award for International Outreach from the American College of Surgeons. And he has managed to complete over 100 marathons, running the terrain of every continent—even Antarctica. 

He asserts that more important than any particular skill is the willingness to be a healer, to show interest and compassion for “the world’s bottom billion.” His personal crusade to tell stories about how holistic healing changes lives, communities and countries and to recruit others to this cause is chronicled on the web

“The healing art is the ideal transportable skill that can cross all artificial borders,” he said. He notes that the five top reasons for mortality in the world—diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, malnutrition, malaria and measles—are all preventable and do not require large sums of money or intricate technical skill, just a willingness to become involved and persistent engagement. 

Geelhoed gave examples of his work in many corners of the world. A stirring example is in southern Sudan, where warring tribes did more physical and emotional damage to one another than disease and outside military incursions. 

“We promised the establishment of a sustainable health clinic and trained staff for the region, but only if the leaders of the tribes would pledge to end the violence against one another,” he said. 

Geelhoed’s team members handed out white “Mission to Heal” bracelets and put them on the wrists of the tribal leaders. If the bracelets remained and were not “stained with the blood of their brothers and sisters,” long-term health care could be a reality for the region. The plan, thus far, has worked wonders in this war-torn region. 

After 40 years of medical mission journeys, Geelhoed says he has learned far more from those he has met than he could ever teach as an American doctor. His reflections are contained in a new book, Gifts from the Poor: What the World’s Poor Taught One Doctor about Healing (Greenleaf Book Group). All proceeds from the book will go to the Medical Mission Hall of Fame. 

“I’m an American,” he said. “I’ve been on the receiving end of a whole lot of advantages and have not even paid back the interest … . What is essential is the willingness to take on some responsibility and see what can be done with fingers, eyes, ears—and a heart big enough to direct them.” 

Immediately after his January Series engagement, Geelhoed was off again, this time for the Philippines, which was to be followed by a return trip to Sudan, or rather the new country of South Sudan. Not only will there be healing interventions, but his Sudanese friends have done something they know will bring Geelhoed joy: They’ve organized the first-ever Jonglei Marathon.