Dr. Teague keeps extra rubber bands from his Cuban trip as a reminder
We've all heard the saying, "never say never," and Birmingham endocrinologist R. Joe Teague, MD, learned what can happen when you utter the word "never." The Birmingham native recalls growing up in the '60s as a math and science guy. "I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I thought going to Huntsville and sending men to the moon would be an exciting way to spend my life," he says.
Having watched his grandmother die from cancer, he says he was always quick to tell people what he didn't want to be. "I said I know I never want to be a doctor or a missionary," Teague remembers wryly. "I guess you should never say no to the Boss."
As Teague sought to find his place in the world, he repeatedly asked God to show him what He wanted him to do with his life. He describes his struggle as a "Jonah and the Whale" experience. "I kept being called to be a doctor, but I didn't want to answer," he says.
Before starting college, Teague attended a summer program sponsored by the American Cancer Society, during which he did research with Buris R. Boshell, MD who was instrumental in the founding of the Buris R. Boshell, MD Diabetes Research and Education Hospital at UAB. "I really liked the program, so I decided to stop fighting and become a doctor. At that point, it became my intense focus," he says.
After attending Samford University for three years, Teague applied to medical school and was accepted at Vanderbilt and the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham. "Because of Vanderbilt medical school's historic reputation, I thought I would go there; but I had begun dating Jane Withers from Atlanta. I knew I had to choose between her and Vanderbilt, and I chose her," Teague says. "People thought I was crazy at the time, but now UAB has become a nationally renowned medical school – and I got the girl, too!"
While in medical school in Birmingham, Teague also got a unique opportunity he would not have had anywhere else. He was one of five students chosen to be part of the last group of medical students taught by Tinsley Harrison, M.D., Professor Emeritus of the Department of Medicine. "Dr. Harrison has a legacy as one of the giants of 20th Century medicine. He inspired me in understanding the roles of research, education, and service in medicine," Teague says.
Following medical school, Teague did his Endocrine Fellowship at UCLA where he was the American Diabetes Association fellow. That research experience piqued an interest in endocrinology and diabetes that continues to be the focus of his medical practice today. He later spent time as an Assistant Professor at the Medical College of Georgia before returning to Birmingham to private practice.
After settling into his medical practice at Carraway, Teague was forced to face the second "never" he had uttered as a child. He was approached about going on a humanitarian mission trip to Cuba. "The people of Cuba have nothing because of the trade blockade, and innocent people suffer because of the country's leadership," he says. "Churches act as an underground economy to help the people, and I wanted to be part of such a group. I decided to go and to take medication and supplies that could help the Cuban people."
When Teague's group landed in Cuba, they were met by khaki-clad men with machine guns, a stark contrast to the Cuban people who were gentle and welcoming, but very poor. "It was a great spiritual experience being there. It truly changed me forever," Teague says.
At the end of the trip, it was time to distribute the medicines he had brought – everything from aspirin to donated pharmaceuticals. It was then that Teague and his friends clearly saw God's hand in their efforts. "We didn't know how we were going to distribute the medicines, because we had no way to bundle them," he says. One of the group found a wad of rubber bands in their supplies which worked perfectly. Teague says he wondered aloud how they happened to have so many rubber bands. "The missionary leader began to cry. Her mother, who was on a fixed income, wanted to contribute something for the trip so she sent rubber bands that she had saved from her newspapers. That shows how amazing God is. To this day, I keep some of those rubber bands to remind me who provides what we need."
On the last day of the trip, their group was told that they were under arrest. Cuban officials told them that each one would have to sign a confession that they had committed a crime and pay a fine. "One of the missionaries told them we would pay the fine but we would not sign a confession," Teague says. "They called us all in one at a time and we all said the same thing. We all just knew we were headed to a Cuban prison. The Cuban officials could not understand why Americans would come to their country and freely give away so many things. They couldn't comprehend it. They thought we were CIA and deported us under house arrest."
After several miraculous occurrences, the group finally was released and returned home to the U.S. "Coming home to America doesn't impact you until you see people who are without hope, without freedom, and without God," Teague says. "You realize what a beacon of hope the U.S. is for the world."
Teague often thinks about how, many years ago, he said "never" would he be a doctor or a missionary. It was during the trip to Cuba that he realized he could be both at once. "From a kid who didn't want to be a doctor or a missionary, this trip was the high point of my life," he says. "It showed me how medicine can be a ministry, and I try to minister through my practice." He sums if up in a quote from St. Francis of Assisi that he uses to instruct new staff. "I tell them to 'spread the gospel everyday, in every way, and if absolutely necessary, use words."