During the accident, the 60-year-old Nigerian motorcyclist’s spleen had ruptured, and he was bleeding to death.
With the hospital administrator — and the only trained surgeon — out of town for a meeting, Allen Pelletier, MD, the only other physician at Nigeria’s Egbe Hospital, and a visiting U.S. medical student looked at one another.
“Have you ever seen a splenectomy?” Pelletier asked. The student shook his head. “OK, well, I’ve seen one, so I guess I’m the surgeon.”
The anesthesiologist refused to put the patient under general anesthesia but agreed to local. So, with the patient wide awake and a nurse holding a textbook open to the page on the procedure, Pelletier performed the splenectomy, with the medical student assisting. But first, he called his wife, and said, “Marge, pray. Get everyone to pray.”
Pelletier prayed also. The next day, when he visited the patient on the ward, Pelletier had to ask, “Weren’t you worried?”
“No,” the man replied. “When you prayed, I knew you were going to do it and God was with us and that it was going to be a success.”
Marge recalls that Pelletier responded with a grin, “Boy, I wish I had your faith.” She adds, “A week later, that man walked out of the hospital.”
For about a decade, the late Dr. Allen Pelletier, family medicine physician and professor at the Medical College of Georgia, served overseas as a medical missionary in Nigeria with Marge and their three children, Ken, Lisa and Daniel. His experiences are partly the reason why, after Pelletier’s death in 2019, Marge reached out to the Medical College of Georgia to set up a fund in her husband’s memory.
The Allen L. Pelletier, MD Global Education Fund supports MCG family medicine residents who want to participate in overseas humanitarian postgraduate medical training rotations, covering travel, room and board.
“Allen’s time overseas helped him to see his place in the world, more so than just getting to use his medical training to heal people,” says Marge. “So that’s what I hope this scholarship will do. I hope it will help the residents learn about themselves as they practice family medicine in an overseas setting and learn about opportunities that are out there.”
Marge and Pelletier met in the summer of 1976 as college students on a Campus Crusade for Christ beach project at Virginia Beach. She was a junior at Virginia Tech, while he was a senior at University of Louisiana Lafayette. The story Pelletier always told was, “I fell madly in love, but she was not impressed.”
“I asked him what he wanted to do after graduation,” says Marge, “and he said he didn’t know yet. Until he knew where he was going, I wasn’t going to get serious.”
At the time, Pelletier was a history and philosophy major. Whether or not Marge’s response had an impact, Pelletier did find his calling that fall. The way he described it to Marge was that he pictured himself as a doctor in a foreign setting.
Fortunately, Pelletier had an uncle who was an OB/GYN, who gave him the practical advice of working in a hospital first to see if he liked it. He did, both the work and the patients. So, Pelletier threw himself into catching up on his pre-med requirements. He and Marge married in 1979 just as he was about to enter Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport.
Later, as a resident, Pelletier would say he was glad he chose surgery initially—especially given cases like the man with the ruptured spleen. But a year in, he decided surgery wasn’t for him and switched to family medicine. “Family medicine allowed him to be trained in everything from OB and pediatrics all the way up to geriatrics, and there was a lot of infectious disease in there too…he just thrived on the variety,” says Marge.
Pelletier completed his medical training and went into practice for a couple of years to pay off student loans. He and Marge both took a year of Biblical training at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and spent another year fundraising to go overseas.
The family left for Nigeria in December 1990, spending two terms at Egbe Hospital and a third term with Pelletier as a traveling doctor, visiting rural villages — just him, a nurse, a pastor and a driver for two weeks at a time. Although Nigeria is one of Africa’s most populous countries, the area where the Pelletiers served is marked by dusty red-dirt roads, homes built of clay with thatched roofs, frequent blackouts (if electricity is even available), and local streams and wells as the only source of water.
During this time, Marge ran the Sunday school, and raised and homeschooled their children. When the family came back to the U.S. for regular visits, more often than not, people wanted to know how hard it really was. But for all of them, it was an adventure. “It was,” Marge says, “a colorful life.
“When you have a job that you really love, it’s, ‘I can’t believe people pay me for this.’ He never thought of it as a deprivement. It was always a privilege,” says Marge.
It was, says Marge, “a sad thing” when their decade overseas came to an end. At that point, their oldest son was about to start college, Pelletier needed to retool and refresh his credentials, and three of their four parents had recently passed away. “A door was closing, but another one was opening,” she says.
During the regular rounds of visiting churches to share their mission story, Pelletier was in Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, when a parishioner and resident at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center told him that a faculty position in family medicine had come open.
So, the Pelletiers found themselves in Tennessee. But there wasn’t room for advancement at the time, and Pelletier happened to meet Joseph Hobbs, MD, ’74, now chair emeritus of the MCG Department of Family Medicine and Community Medicine, at a conference where Hobbs spoke. What happened next was “so like my husband,” says Marge: After the talk, Pelletier came up to Hobbs, shook his hand and said, “If you ever need another teacher coming your way, I would love to work for you.”
Six months later, Pelletier had interviewed and was offered a faculty position at MCG. But then, before Pelletier could move to Augusta, he fell off a ladder while cleaning out gutters, shattering his hip socket, breaking his pelvis in two places, and breaking his arm.
“I called Dr. Hobbs [and told him,] ‘He is not going to be there on time,’” says Marge. Pelletier ended up bedridden for three months and had to learn to walk again. “[Hobbs] said, ‘Marge, I just want you to not worry at all. We will hold this job for him. Just make sure that you’re there for him and you just tell him we’ll be ready for him when he gets here.’ It was just a confirmation that MCG was the place we should be.”
The Pelletiers never went on a long-term overseas mission trip again. But Marge earned her doctor of pharmacy degree, and she and Pelletier became involved in the Christian Medical and Dental Association, which provides resources, networking opportunities, education and a public voice for Christian health care professionals and students. Pelletier also still regularly traveled overseas to conferences to give continuing medical education to medical missionaries so they could maintain their credentials without having to return stateside.
At MCG, Pelletier had a reputation as “the quintessential caring physician,” says Rick Sams, MD, medical director of the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home and a family medicine physician, who worked with Pelletier and became a close friend. After Pelletier passed away, so many patients told Sams that they were only alive because of Pelletier working to refer them to the optimum treatments. “He tried to inspire residents to really go the extra mile for patients, and he mostly did that by demonstrating that himself.”
The years Pelletier spent overseas as a full-time missionary doctor stayed close to his heart. Before he retired from MCG, he talked about starting a program that would support residents on an overseas rotation. While opportunities like this exist for medical students, few are available for residents. Not only did Pelletier feel that the experience would be beneficial for residents, but he also thought it would attract more of them to family medicine at MCG. His own time overseas, says Marge, “helped him develop more compassion for the underserved and the underprivileged [and] opened up his mind to opportunities and increased his world view.”
Pelletier never got to see the overseas program he envisioned adopted at MCG. He retired in May 2019 and passed away unexpectedly three months later from a heart attack. “I knew that was one thing he wished he’d been able to do,” says Marge.
Soon after her husband’s death, Marge reached out to Dean Seehusen, MD, chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, and to the MCG Foundation. The endowment was fully funded in January of this year, and this summer, the first cohort of residents will be eligible to benefit from it.
“I think when you go on a short-term trip like this, it’s not that you do so much for people there, it’s more how it changes you,” says Marge. As for Allen, “‘I think he’d be very pleased,” she adds. “And I think he will see the results more than I will from his view.”
If you’d like to help support family medicine residents in overseas education through a gift to The Allen L. Pelletier, MD Global Education Fund, please click the link or contact Nancy Hannan at 706-832-5564.