San Antonio Pastor Counts Blessings Amid Tragic Amputation
Even at 65, the athletic 6-foot-4 pastor of Calvary Temple in San Antonio, Texas, still excelled in ball games, particularly basketball. Until around five years ago, Doug W. Roberts could beat most pastors of any age in a one-on-one basketball match.
“I’ve beaten several college players in my life one-on-one,” Roberts says. “That’s my brag for the day.”
The notable exception: golf.
“At almost 300 pounds. I could outhit almost everybody playing, but we never could find the ball. It’d slice off somewhere,” Roberts says.
“He’s worse than me,” attests Mike Hammonds, pastor of Angleton First Church, Angleton, Texas, regarding his fellow section presbyter’s golf game. The two met more than 30 years ago at a golf missions fundraiser and have played annually at minister tournaments.
“The woods, water, the lost area—the ball goes farther but not in the right direction. He’s really bad.”
His family knew of his abysmal golfing ability. When his grandchildren grew older, he’d not be the best coach to teach them that sport.
On May 31, Roberts set aside the football he often tossed with his elementary-aged grandsons, and with his wife, Janet, headed with them to a theme park where a roller coaster left him sore and bruised.
Five days later, Roberts was at death’s door in a hospital emergency room. He had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria that can live in water or on surfaces. This fast-moving infection destroys deep soft tissues, including muscle fascia, often requiring limb amputation. One in five die; those age 65 and older run higher risk of death.
Before preaching a funeral the next day, Roberts felt flu-like symptoms and left for home right after the service. The day after that, he stayed in bed with a fever; by late afternoon, a bruise formed on his left thigh where the roller coaster harness had touched his skin. His fever rose to 104; Janet encouraged him to see a doctor. A day later, he went to a clinic but said nothing to doctors about the bruise, which to him seemed unrelated to what he believed was the flu, and they sent him home.
Overnight the fever persisted, and the bruise developed bursting blisters. Janet insisted he see his family physician, who sent him immediately to the ER.
Delirium began to set in. Still, doctors thought he had the flu and planned to discharge him when orthopedic surgeon Nicholas E. Gerken ordered tests.
“I’m alive today because Dr. Gerkin insisted on them running blood work on me right then,” Roberts says.
Two hours later, Roberts was on the operating table. Doctors removed a large portion of his upper thigh and placed him on strong antibiotics to stave off the infection.
The next day, however, the infection shut down his kidneys. Doctors placed him on dialysis and a ventilator. The morning after, Janet saw the dark blisters had spread beyond the surgical wrappings.
Gerken took Roberts back into surgery. Soon the surgeon emerged to get Janet’s permission to do the unthinkable: “It’s his leg or his life,” he said.
About this time, the infectious diseases physician told Janet that if she’s religious, she should start praying.
Matt Leighty, Calvary Temple’s executive pastor and Roberts’ son-in-law, called an emergency Wednesday night prayer meeting. Congregants filled the sanctuary. Through missionaries the church supports worldwide, word spread to thousands of intercessors around the globe.
“None of the doctors involved with me were expecting me to live, but they told Janet that my chances were about 50/50 just to give her some hope,” he says. “My life was hanging in the balance, and the scale was tipping the wrong way.”
Dialysis continued as Roberts remained sedated and intubated. Doctors told Janet that if he lived, he’d likely require lifelong dialysis. Then, for no medical reason, his blood impurity “creatinine” levels plummeted, and his kidneys healed.
After 12 days of delirium and sedation, doctors began to slowly bring him around.
Janet’s night had been long and stressful; the next day, she would have to tell her husband that his left leg had been amputated. How would he react?
Sixteen days after his first symptoms, Roberts’ family gathered in his hospital room.
Roberts, who had no memory of almost the past two weeks, became aware of people talking. Janet broke the news: “You’ve been very, very sick, and you had a terrible infection in your left leg. The only option they had to save your life was to amputate your leg.”
In seconds, Roberts processed the shocking information. “It really felt like God was speaking directly to me, telling me that the next words that I speak need to bring comfort to my family,” he says.
His reply: “Well, this is going to really mess up my golf game.”
They all laughed, collectively exhaling a sigh of relief. “The joke assured them that I was back and that I was still me,” Roberts says. “I absolutely believe that God miraculously gave me the ability to make that joke.”
The next hurdle was paying the bills. His and Janet’s Christian-based medical sharing plan maxed out at $250,000 per incident. Two weeks into Roberts’ crisis, his bill was already at $1.2 million. At least two more months of hospitalization and rehab remained.
Roberts enrolled for insurance coverage beginning in July via the Affordable Care Act, which cannot bar him for pre-existing conditions. Miraculously, the policy covered him retroactively to June 1—five days before he entered the hospital.
After surgery, Hammonds asked his friend how he was doing: “He said, ‘Well, I’ve lost 40 pounds.’”
While Roberts responded with a joke, “I don’t think that means he doesn’t have a struggle,” Hammonds says, pointing out the daily obstacles Roberts faces. They’ve seen each other several times since the amputation as they serve together on a committee.
“He’s not unplugging from everything, running away, hiding in a closet. There may be struggles in adapting, but he’s dealing with them head on.”
Roberts now uses a state-of-the-art power wheelchair that his lift van accommodates. A prosthetic leg isn’t a likely option for him; his amputation was a total hip disarticulation, meaning part of the hip bone was removed, leaving no stump to which he could attach a prosthetic. He hopes to be fitted with crutches, which would greatly enhance his mobility.
The sense of loss is palpable. In addition to basketball, he enjoyed softball, tennis and pickleball.
“You just try not to focus on those things and keep moving forward.”
But never has he blamed God for what happened. “We live in an imperfect world where crazy things happen,” Roberts says. “There’s a reason I’m going to discover He allowed me to go through this.”