By Kim Constantinesco
When Dr. Dan Murphy was 54 years old and thinking about retiring from his family medicine practice in Iowa, buying a second home in a warmer climate where he could kick his feet around in the sand didn’t have any appeal.
In fact, he wanted the opposite experience.
“I decided, I’m going to do what I can for people who are really being oppressed,” Murphy, now 71, said.
In 1998, the family practitioner, who also doubled as the team doctor for the University of Northern Iowa basketball squad, sold his home, packed a small suitcase, his stethoscope, and a basketball, and flew across the International Date Line to the southeast Asian nation of East Timor (now known as Timor Leste) — one of the most tumultuous regions of the world at the time.
In an area that saw ravishing violence and disease due to the Indonesian militia, and with 35% of the country’s health facilities destroyed, Murphy set up camp and opened a small clinic.
Today, Murphy’s Bairo Pite Clinic, located in the capital city of Dili, provides free healthcare to over 200 patients a day, and stays up and running thanks to donations and the mid-western doc’s social security and pension.
Murphy didn’t set up shop and return to the U.S. either. He remains in Timor Leste with no intentions of going back other than taking a quick vacation to visit his two sons, who remain stateside. After all, he has everything he needs: a successful medical facility that cares for those who are underserved, a modest home, a small pick-up truck, and oh yeah, a basketball.
Make Medicine, Not War
Murphy was born in Alton, Iowa, a small town where his dad was a doctor, but he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I saw all he did was work day and night,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
Murphy had his sights set on developing his basketball skills, which eventually earned him a partial scholarship to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. After a couple of years of playing guard for the school, he decided to transfer to the University of Iowa and focus more on his education.
“When I got there, I did well in science, not in English or anything like that,” Murphy said. “All my friends were applying to med school and I had really good grades, so I did that too, and I got in.”
The Vietnam War was in full force, and the government gave Murphy “a deferred time period to study.” It wasn’t until after he graduated from medical school in 1971 and traveled east to work as an intern in New York City, that he received a draft summons.
“By the time I became a doctor, my brain was working a lot more, and the whole country was being torn in half by the Vietnam War,” Murphy said. “I had done my training in New York City, and that was the heart of all of the protests and turmoil. So, when they finally called my number to go, that’s when my conscious said, I can’t go.”
As a conscientious objector, the court gave Murphy two years of federal probation, telling him that he could object to going only as long as he was practicing medicine. So, he moved to California, where he ran a clinic for migrant workers under the leadership of civil rights activist and labor leader, Cesar Chavaz.
He married his girlfriend, Janet, and together, they had two boys. Then, in the late 70’s, the family moved to Mozambique for three years to help bring modern medicine to rural areas.
Conflict in that region forced them to return to Iowa, where he ran his own practice for 14 years and had a great position working in the sport he loves most.
Along with keeping the team healthy at the University of Northern Iowa, Murphy played pickup ball every weekday at noon with other athletic department staffers. For him, it was one of the biggest perks of the job and it kept everything in balance.
“In basketball, you dedicate yourself to making sure the team does well. In medicine, you dedicate yourself to making sure the patient does well,” Murphy said. “So in both, you have to work well with other people. Practicing medicine and playing basketball makes me feel alive and puts meaning in my life.”
Jumping Right In
Murphy had never been to East Timor before he moved there, but he was following the country’s story for quite some time. Working in Mozambique, another Portuguese colony like East Timor, Murphy took interest in the people.
When the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETLIN) declared the territory’s independence in 1975 and it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia less than two weeks later, Murphy’s heart broke. Decades of conflict between FRETILIN and the Indonesian military ensued, and bloodshed and violence ruled the area.
Medical facilities had been destroyed, supplies were looted, and medical professionals had been evacuated, so there was no one to take care of sick and injured Timorese.
“I thought someone needs to help them,” Murphy said. “It was only in 1998 that it looked like there was a real possibility of helping because the Indonesian dictator fell from power. That opened the door a little bit for East Timor. So, I got rid of everything I owned and went. My kids were in college and my marriage had ended, so I thought, this is my shot.”
When he first arrived, Murphy set up a makeshift clinic in an abandon Indonesian military clinic. He primarily treated bullet wounds from massacres.
“We would be lined up with all these gunshot wounds, machete wounds, and people who were beaten up by the Indonesians,” Murphy said. “I’m not really trained in that. I’m just a primary care doctor, but that’s what I had to see.”
Murphy was the only non-Indonesian doctor working in the area who was providing life-saving medical care. As the violence died down, about 60,000 refugees came down from the hills, many of whom were seriously injured or ill. He treated everything from tuberculosis to malaria and malnutrition.
“I think it’s a miracle that I got to come to a country that was totally oppressed, undergoing military occupation and genocide, and up against all the powers of the world,” Murphy said. “Somehow, I got to participate in their becoming free. That’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
A Standard of Care
Murphy doesn’t see gun shot wounds anymore. However, 18 years after arriving, more than half of the country lives in poverty and infant mortality rates are still high.
People come to the Bairo Pite Clinic from all over the country to get the best care possible.
“We see a lot of tropical diseases and infectious disease, but we see all the stuff western docs see too, like high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and tumors of different kinds,” Murphy said. “Because we’ve been here through thick and thin, we have a good reputation and people trust us. They know we’re committed to the well-being of East Timor.”
Since its start, the clinic has done over one million consultations. It has been part of training over 1,000 medical students, 40 nurses, 26 midwives, and 26 lay-midwives that treat women in remote villages. The facility itself has over 80 Timorese staff, another senior doctor, and many volunteers, who help deliver over 100 babies per month and treat 2,500 emergency cases per month.
When Dr. Muprhy isn’t at the clinic, you can probably find him on the nearby outdoor basketball court that was recently built. He plays pickup once a week with medical students.
“Last Saturday, we had a game, and we were not doing well,” Murphy said. “I said to myself, I just don’t accept this, and I started trying really hard. I made the last four baskets and our team won. How do you like that!?”
On the court, Murphy describes himself as “extremely stubborn and determined because I don’t have a real high skill level.” So, with his experience, he finds ways to gain an advantage over his younger opponents whether that’s executing the ideal bounce pass or running off a screen perfectly to get a wide open shot.
His wisdom and his determination extend well beyond the court, too. Just look at the Bairo Pite Clinic and the heart of the man who started it all.
“People are suffering. I have the education, the experience, and the skills to address their suffering with compassionate care,” Murphy said. “I have a moral obligation to contribute to people’s well being because I have the ability to do it.”
With a philosophy like that, Murphy’s life has become a layup.