While everyone everywhere is currently focused on fighting the spread of the COVID-19 virus, one local woman has spent decades fighting the outbreak of diseases in countries all over the world. In pursuit of that mission, she and her team have ridden bicycles for thousands of miles across some of the hottest roads in Texas.
Dr. Jeannine Hatt was born in East Texas but grew up in Fort Worth. After graduating high school there, she headed to Sherman to continue her education at Austin College. Hatt, who recently retired from her pediatric practice in Denison, arrived in Sherman with not only a desire to become a doctor, but to become one dedicated to helping in regions of the world where doctors were continually in short supply.
That desire began when eight-year-old Jeannine arrived at her church with her three sisters, mother and father in Fort Worth one Sunday to hear about the work of a medical missionary couple who were visiting the area.
“I was intrigued by their stories of healing and changing lives in remote areas of our world,” Hatt said via email. “I remember leaving that service with the decision that I wanted to do that, and I never wavered from my decision to go to medical school, with the hope that one day I could be involved in international medical work.”
At Austin College she met Chuck Phelps, the man who would later become her husband, in a pre med class. Together, they traveled to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and then did their specialty training, she in pediatrics and he in radiology, in Winston- Salem North Carolina, before returning to Denison to open practices there. Along the way, they were joined on their life’s journey by three children, who were raised in Denison.
Hatt originally went to work with Dr. Don Freeman, then eventually with Texoma Care Pediatrics.
“The children, parents and grandparents I have served have taught me so much. I will always be humbled by the struggles so many families face with such great courage and persistence in seeing that their children are cared for,” Hatt recalled of her years in practice. “It has been such an interesting journey through the decades in which I practiced, as during my early years I was so often dealing with infectious diseases that we now rarely see because of vaccines. We had so many complications in the newborn nursery that are now prevented with improved technology and better perinatal care.”
“Although I found that caring for our Texoma area children was rewarding, I still longed to do some international volunteer work,” Hatt continuted. “I thought it would be an interesting way to learn about a new culture, see diseases we do not commonly see in our country, possibly provide care to someone who had no access to care and, importantly, I wanted our children to participate so they could see how most children in our world live.”
Then, in 1989, one woman changed things for Hatt. That woman brought in her six-month-old, whom she had just adopted from a Guatemalan orphanage.
“She began to tell me about the organization she and her husband volunteered for that put together a large medical team several times a year to travel to remote areas of Central America to provide needed health care,” Hatt said.
“At that time, (Chuck and I) had three children, and she assured me that the summer trip included children who also participated, helping as volunteers in the clinic or playing with the local children with games, stories and songs,” Hatt continued, “so we began volunteering with a variety of organizations— most of which provided hands on medical care— and traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and areas of Mexico and Venezuela. These experiences had a major positive impact on our children as well as my husband’s and my global view.”
Then in 2000, Hatt was invited to visit a children’s hospital in Haiti that was known for its work in tuberculosis but wanted to broaden its range of services.
“The hospital was International Child Care’s Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and that is the organization Chuck and I have been most involved with and supported since then,” Hatt said.
Being involved with the Haitian hospital helped Hatt realize that the best way to have a positive impact on children outside of America was to empower local doctors, nurses and healthcare system with education by helping them raise resources and advocating for children globally.
“We have taken some medical groups in to provide hands-on care, especially after the horrible 2010 earthquake, but most of my focus has been involved in organizing numerous medical exchanges in Haiti,” Hatt said. “Because the main hospital was destroyed by the earthquake this has been more challenging, but the work still goes on. My most recent educational focus has been in promoting Helping Babies Survive, a neonatal resuscitation and newborn care program used for training midwives, doctors and nurses in resource poor areas.”
Along with taking in donations and helping with education, Hatt said in 2006 a small group of them decided to put together a bicycle team to raise money for Grace Children’s Hospital, getting sponsorships to cycle in the Hotter’n Hell Hundred bicycle race, an annual event held the last weekend in August in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“We work hard every year to promote that ‘it is not how far, nor how fast you ride, but how much support you raise for the children!’” Hatt said. “The Texoma area community has been supportive of this event, including our many friends and colleagues who have ridden, our church (Waples Methodist), Texoma Bicycle Works, and the area businesses which have sponsored (us).”
Since its founding, the team has raised over $750,000. For those interested in participating with the Race for Grace team, they provide housing, food, a racing jersey and “a good feeling that you have improved your own health while improving the health of children and families living in the country with the highest child mortality rate in our hemisphere.”
For more information about Grace Children’s Hospital, visit www.internationalchildcare.org.