Called to “Take Their Burdens”
How a lifetime of service led one former student around the world and back
The stats were nearly off the charts.
With a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, the earthquake off the western coast of Indonesia became the third largest ever recorded on a seismograph. It lasted nearly 10 minutes, the longest duration of faulting ever observed, and it caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 cm. It even triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.
Far from over, the earthquake generated hundreds of aftershocks and a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 100 feet high. It remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
Nearly four months after the December 26, 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Indonesia, Dane Robinson, M.D., Assistant Professor of Family & Community Medicine and Texas A&M Physician for the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, arrived with a team of doctors, nurses and translators. With the country in ruins, it had taken them that long to coordinate logistics and arrange for travel.
“We would find a clear space—any space that wasn’t covered in rubble—and set up a clinic to treat survivors,” Dr. Robinson remembers. “Every day we battled the rain, humidity, stench and debris, and yet survivors kept coming.”
Those survivors’ stories were heartbreaking. Giant waves crushed homes, ripped children from their mothers’ arms and wiped out entire families. One man, his back heavily lacerated from being drug across the roof of his own house, told of walking out the door that morning to continue work on the construction of his home. Hammer in hand, he heard the wave approach, and before he could react, it lifted him, finally depositing him miles inland. His family was gone.
“Through it all, the most important thing I did,” Dr. Robinson recounts, “was to ask each and every survivor, ‘What happened to you?’” That simple question, he said, allowed survivors to share what they had experienced for the first time. “They needed someone to take that immense burden off their shoulders so that they could begin to heal emotionally and physically.”
Amidst all the destruction and chaos, Dr. Robinson knew he was right where he needed to be.
That knowledge of being in the right place at the right time is something that’s followed Dr. Robinson throughout his life. As a child he always loved science but was initially intimidated by medical school. Once he began, though, the idea of being the all-around doctor appealed to him.
“I found myself approaching each new rotation with gusto,” he says, “but then I’d be bored by the end. I really wanted to do a bit of everything, and family medicine just fit.”
After graduating from the Texas A&M University (now Texas A&M Health Science Center) College of Medicine in 1988, Dr. Robinson went on to complete his family medicine residency at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. In 1992, he took over a two-man practice in Norfolk, Nebraska, where, for seven years he lived next door to a hospital and, in his words, “…delivered a heck of a lot of babies.”
After an earthquake struck Turkey in 1999, Dr. Robinson volunteered to go to Istanbul as part of Northwest Medical Teams (now Medical Teams International), a non-profit humanitarian aid and global health organization.
“Within 48 hours I was enmeshed,” he says. “I ended up becoming the national director for Northwest Medical Teams in Turkey, hiring staff, coordinating doctors and nurses, and setting up three temporary clinics over nine months.”
Again, being in the right place at the right time proved beneficial for Dr. Robinson. He, his wife and his four children ended up staying in Turkey for nearly 10 years.
While in Turkey, the Robinsons founded an international school where Dr. Robinson taught biology. Because of his language skills, he became involved with aid efforts in northern Iraq called Operation Comfort, and for three years he coordinated teams of doctors, nurses, technicians and teachers for that initiative.
After the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, in the summers of 2005 and 2006, Dr. Robinson returned to Texas to fill in part-time at the College of Medicine’s Family Medicine Center in Bryan at the request of long-time colleague Dr. David McClellan, Director of the College of Medicine’s Family Medicine Residency Program. The two met in 1986 when Dr. Robinson was a second-year medical student and Dr. McClellan was a new doctor in town.
Then in 2007, the Robinsons made the leap and moved back to Texas.
“We needed to be closer to family, and I wanted to focus more on practicing medicine and continuing my education as a physician,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s where we needed to be.”
When we caught up with Dr. Robinson, he was a far cry from the fields of Turkey and the coasts of Indonesia. Instead, he was on call at St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan ready to deliver a baby—right where he needed to be.
Editor’s note: This interview was interrupted by the delivery of that baby, but we didn’t mind at all.