If Dr. Richard Furman had listened to one of his high school teachers, he would have given up on his dream of being a doctor. As he struggled in chemistry his senior year amid a newly implemented testing system, his professor advised him against taking the pre-med track in college.
Instead, the Mercer University alumnus followed the advice of another teacher, who took him aside and told him not to abandon his goal. He earned high marks in two science courses at Mercer that summer and knew he was on his way. He went on to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and co-found World Medical Mission, the medical ministry of Samaritan’s Purse.
Building a foundation at Mercer
Dr. Furman, a 1962 graduate of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, grew up in Rome and worked at a Clayton summer camp for three summers. About 80% of the staff there attended Mercer, so that was the only place he applied for college.
“I didn’t even go to visit the school. That’s where I knew I wanted to be,” said Dr. Furman, who lives in Boone, North Carolina.
He took a job in the dining hall to get a tuition discount, and later started driving the bus that picked up nursing students and teaching a weekly class too. By senior year, those campus jobs had added up to free tuition for Dr. Furman.
His world travels began at Mercer. He and his roommate went to Europe for three months, where they climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland and planted a flag for his fraternity, Sigma Nu, on top. He also participated in a two-week foreign exchange trip to Russia, a rare travel destination during the 1960s amid Cold War tensions and an interesting experience, to say the least. Dr. Furman said the espionage trial of captured U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers began in Moscow while the Mercer group was there.
But Dr. Furman said meeting his future wife was the most important thing that happened during his time at Mercer … and the best thing to ever happen in his life. He met Harriet while waiting in line to register for classes, and he helped her write a check since she had just gotten her bank account set up and wasn’t quite sure what to do. They didn’t start dating until a year and a half later, but Dr. Furman realized quickly that Harriet was the woman he wanted to marry. They have been married for 56 years and have three children and nine grandchildren.
“I prayed that the Lord was leading me to the right wife. On our second date, I knew she was it. I didn’t tell her, but I knew,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends, and I don’t know anybody that has a better marriage than we do.”
Mercer was also where he grew and developed his spiritual foundation, Dr. Furman said. His faith has been an integral part of his life as well as his work, and it’s helped guide every step of his journey.
Serving others around the world
With a bachelor’s degree from Mercer under his belt, Dr. Furman headed to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and then completed his general surgery residency at the University of Kentucky, followed by cardiothoracic training. He opened Watauga Surgical Group in Boone, North Carolina, with older brother Dr. Lowell Furman, who passed away in 2006, and stayed in practice there for 32 years.
A friendship with evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, led to the founding of World Medical Mission in 1977. The Furman brothers were invited to a Billy Graham crusade in Asheville, North Carolina, and while there, they were asked to participate in a month-long medical mission in India. The trip showed them how great the medical needs were overseas.
“We talked to Franklin Graham and told him that he ought to start an organization to send doctors overseas for four to six weeks,” Dr. Furman said. “Franklin wrote to about 30 mission hospitals to see if there was a need, and they said, ‘Yes, send them now.’ Franklin agreed to go in with us and start that organization.”
Graham was named the president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse after founder Bob Pierce died in 1979, and World Medical Mission became the organization’s medical arm and began expanding its scope. Drs. Lowell and Richard Furman traveled to different mission hospitals every year to evaluate them and establish new partnerships.
World Medical Mission sent four doctors overseas its first year and seven its second year. Today, 700-800 medical professionals travel every year to 52 different hospitals in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and the Middle East for short-term assignments. The organization also has a two-year post-residency program for physicians and dentists pursuing careers in medical missions, and it just started a one-year chaplain training program.
Dr. Furman said he has operated in many hospitals in Africa as well as countries like New Guinea and Bangladesh for World Medical Mission. He cared for patients in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu/Blackhawk Down in 1993; in Kigali, Rwanda, after the 1994 genoicide; in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; and in an emergency field hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. He still evaluates hospitals and scrubs in on cases occasionally.
In addition to his mission work, Dr. Furman has been very active with the American College of Surgeons over the years. He served as president and governor of the North Carolina chapter and was presented with the International Surgical Volunteerism Award in 2019. He also is the author of several books, including Prescription for Life, Reaching Your Full Potential and Defeating Dementia.
“I think the best thing to see looking back is that the Lord has used you,” he said. “I know I pray from time to time that he did use me to glorify him.”