Islanders give the gift of mobility

Organ concert at MIPC to benefit Prosthetics Outreach Foundation

Twenty years ago, Ernest Burgess, a Mercer Island orthopedic surgeon, launched a bold initiative that has improved the quality of life for thousands. In 1989 he started the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation.

While many his age were focusing on golf, travel or simply taking it easy, the 78-year-old physician was driven by a faith-based passion. Dr. Burgess felt called to alleviate the suffering of amputees around the world. He knew that the victims of war, landmines, accidents and other tragedies included countless men, women and far too many children.

Burgess recognized that regaining mobility is the most important step in the emotional and physical recovery of those without limbs. He strongly believed that “amputees can begin to rebuild their lives, transforming a life of dependency on others into a life of increased self-worth and independence.” Unwilling to wait for someone else to find solutions, Burgess knew that he was in a position to give a hand ... and a foot or leg.

In 1990 the first prosthetics clinic was opened in Vietnam. Subsequently, the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation has provided assistance to amputees in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. Although Burgess died in 2000, his dream of making the world a better place continues to be realized. To date, more than 13,000 individuals have benefited from a physician’s faith that found expression beyond the confines of a church pew.

That being said, Burgess was grateful for the church where his Christian faith was informed and inspired on a weekly basis. He and his wife, Ruthie, loved the musical traditions of Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. When talk of a new church organ began to circulate, the Burgesses decided they would like to make a significant contribution toward the project, which they did upon their death. The specs of the new instrument included approximately 1,650 speaking pipes and 25 voices, not to mention an antiphonal organ, harp and chimes. MIPC’s new organ was dedicated in September 2005, after both of the Burgesses had passed away; however, their generous gift, along with gifts of many others, helped make it a reality.

As final funding for the new organ was being realized, a world-renowned organist by the name of Mark Thallander found himself unexpectedly relating to the challenges and needs of those that Burgess’ foundation seeks to serve.

Mark, for 18 years the organist at the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, was on a performing tour in New England. During a torrential rainstorm, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident. In order to save Mark’s life, medical personnel had to amputate his left arm. The gifted musician was grateful to be alive. All the same, he had reason to believe his career might be over. Miraculously, it was not.

Much like the faith that pushed a 78-year-old surgeon to find a way to help amputees, Mark’s faith provided him with the means to push beyond the pain and depression to perform again. With two feet and his right hand, Mark Thallander continues to amaze audiences and congregations around the nation with his musical ability and his inspirational story.

This Friday evening, Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Mark Thallander will be performing at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. The concert, co-sponsored by MIPC and Mercer Island Covenant Church, will also feature Jo Ann Stremler, resident organist at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Although there is no admission charge, a freewill offering will be received. Proceeds from the offering will benefit the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation and the Mark Thallander Foundation.

Although the Burgesses could not have anticipated the irony of Friday’s concert, I can’t help but wonder if the Good Lord will pull back Heaven’s curtain to allow Dr. and Mrs. Burgess a peek. In spite of being an amputee, Mark Thallander’s ability to coax music from the MIPC pipe organ will leave his listeners astounded. And what is more, with the only hand he has, Mark gives all the glory to God!

Greg Asimakoupoulos is the pastor of Mercer Island Covenant Church.

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