ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
While most people their age would think twice before traveling across the state for a weekend, John and Clara Schmidt of Goessel plan to embark tomorrow on a trip to Paraguay for three months.
But then this couple, now 90 and 86 years old, respectively, have a made a lifetime out of doing the unorthodox.
They plan to celebrate that legacy firsthand by attending the 50th anniversary of Kilometer 81, the rural medical clinic they founded some 50 miles east of Paraguay’s capital city of Asuncion.
The clinic, under their direction for some 25 years, revolutionized the care of people with leprosy not only in Paraguay but throughout South America.
“The last time I was in Paraguay, just before we left, I said I want to be there for the 50th anniversary even if I have to crawl on all fours,” John said.
Fortunately, that won’t be necessary, given the good health the Schmidts enjoy. But John’s sentiments reflect the commitment they still feel to the work, the people and the country that have absorbed so much of their lives.
John is a Goessel native, Clara grew up east of Newton. A 1924 graduate of Goessel High, John started at the University of Kansas in 1928. After earning his medical degree there, he was an intern in Baltimore for three years.
He was ready to take over a medical practice in Idaho in 1941 when the director of Mennonite Central Committee, a fledgling relief organization of Mennonite-related churches, asked him to do a two-year service stint in Paraguay. Mennonite refugees had settled in the desolate Chaco region of Paraguay and needed a physician.
John agreed to go. When he returned to the United States in 1943, he and Clara were married. She had worked her way through Bethel College and has just completed her nurses training. They had corresponded during his two-year stint among the Mennonite colonies.
Their honeymoon was a return trip to Paraguay.
“The people there were in two colonies and without a doctor,” Clara said. “MCC wanted John to go back and I was happy about that. So we went back together.”
They stayed there for three-and-a-half years before returning-with two children-to begin a medical practice first in Freeman, S.D., and then in Mountain Lake, Minn.
In 1951, MCC called again. Would the Schmidts consider doing medical service in an isolated area in Eastern Paraguay?
“We had five children by then,” Clara said. “It was kind of a hard decision because this time we were going into completely unknown territory. We knew we wouldn’t be living in a Mennonite colony. There would be no decent schools for the kids. It was a pretty hard decision.”
But they accepted the challenge and moved onto a single tract of land that a Mennonite family had purchased there.
“It had two little Paraguay shacks and a well,” Clara said. “That was about it.”
The couple went to begin a general medical practice there. But John had another goal in mind, too.
“When I went there in 1941, I could see that (Mennonites) there had good Bible education, but no application,” John said. “I felt we needed somebody to lead the young people into Christian service.”
John saw an opportunity for service among Paraguayan natives who were suffering from leprosy. In consultation with the American Leprosy Mission, he began a program to meet their needs. The first challenge was to locate them.
“It was a bad situation because leprosy patients were all afraid that they were going to be put in a place almost like a prison,” John said. “The leprosy patients went into the hinterland and into hiding because they didn’t want to be found out.”
John and a priest followed up various leads on horseback and even on foot. When they located a patient, they would treat him or her in the home. If the patient needed special care, they would bring him or her back to the clinic.
“The American Leprosy Mission, MCC and everybody but John thought we should start a colony,” Clara said. “The neighboring town didn’t want a leprosy colony close by, so we started to build guest houses instead of a hospital.”
Intermingling leprosy patients with other patients was all but unheard of before the Schmidts started doing it. The prevailing notion was that leprosy was spread by physical contact. John came to the conclusion that it was more likely spread through nose, like tuberculosis, which made leprosy much less of a threat to the general population.
Leprosy patients were treated primarily in their homes, but a day was set aside for those who needed special attention to come to the clinic.
“For those who needed care, we had guest houses for physical therapy and treating wounds,” Clara said. “A big thing was the cobbler shop, where they made special shoes for crooked feet so people could walk again.”
The Schmidts’ efforts to heal physical maladies was always accompanied by a concern for the spiritual needs of the people.
“They’d always take a chaplain and distribute Bibles and tracts,” Clara said. “With about 100 patients a day, there were always about 300 people milling around the clinic when the relatives came.”
The work continued to grow and, over the years, the Schmidts were able to involve nearly 1,000 young people from the Mennonite colonies in Christian service there.
“It was such a blessing to us,” Clara said. “We went to the colony churches and recruited workers, and we had young people come out. Their parents trusted us because they knew us from the time we lived with them.”
Some young people came from the two colonies located about 100 miles away from the clinic. Most came from the colonies located about 400 miles away.
“They weren’t used to being mingled like that with freedom every evening to play games,” Clara said of their young volunteers. “It was a real responsibility for us.”
Today, Kilometer 81 operates under the same general principles and practices the Schmidts established. The clinic and guest houses have become a model for leprosy treatment for all of South America.
The Schmidts continued working full time at Kilometer 81 until 1971, but were called back twice after starting a clinic further east.
In 1993, the Schmidt came back to Kansas for good. Three of their six children still live in Paraguay, which has become a key reason John and Clara want to return. They also have two foster children living there.
And, of course, they still keep an eye on the work of Kilometer 81.
“We’ve been welcomed out there,” John said. “It’s a wonderful place to go. They always tell us they’re glad we’re coming home.”
The Schmidts credit their accomplishments in Paraguay to the work of God.
“To me, it’s very interesting that the Lord first made it possible for us to go as a young married couple into this wilderness, and then that he prepared us for the leprosy work,” Clara said. “He worked it out that we were acquainted with the Mennonite people there, that they trusted us and were willing to take hold of our vision and help us.
“There were such hard times that we sometimes felt like quitting,” she added. “But the Lord just carried us through.”