LITTLE CURRENT – As Christian missionary and physician Doug Burbella, formerly of Little Current, floated above his body while friends and colleagues pleaded with the Haitian gang members who had just shot him three times, he quickly decided to have an important heart-to-heart conversation with God.
Dr. Burbella has been travelling to Haiti for over 30 years with the Living Water Ministries of the Palm Beaches and just hours after his arrival in Pap, Haiti, the two-vehicle convoy in which he was travelling with a six-member team was ambushed by gang members. Dr. Burbella recently sat down with The Expositor to relate his harrowing story of survival.
“We were four hours into the trip about 45 minutes outside of St. Marc,” he said. The missionary group was making its way to the clinic Dr. Burbella helps sponsor, travelling in two SUVs stacked to the brim with computers along a narrow and twisting road. The group had travelled together from Miami, Florida and while the region can be dangerous, the team was comprised of experienced visitors to the area.
“We passed two men, twenty-somethings, standing by a stack of rubber tires and canisters of gasoline,” he said A sense of foreboding was beginning to build, but the convoy members handed over a few dollars and continued on their way. As they drove off, Dr. Burbella saw them talking on their cellphones.
They really began to realize something was amiss when they entered the next village.
“We noticed that there were no women or children to be seen anywhere,” said Dr. Burbella. “Usually the children are all over us and we give out candy as we pass through,” he said. “There were a couple of old men standing on the side of the street and one of them made a gesture with his hand held low,” said Dr. Burbella, demonstrating a kind of “calm down” motion with his own hand. “In hindsight we should have turned around and gone back right then.”
Dr. Burbella has a finely honed survival sense that comes from a lifetime of experience in conflict zones. He has fought against ISIS in the Middle East among other adventures. “That’s what I like,” he said, a bit of a self-admitted adrenaline junkie.
But this time the medical missionary was about to fall into the hands of a gang that numbered around 150 members.
When the vehicles turned a bend in the road after leaving the village they were confronted with a barricade of burning tires and soon the convoy was surrounded by a horde of men brandishing AK-47 automatic assault rifles and handguns. Dr. Burbella and a friend were in the second SUV.
“I saw them pulling our friends out of the vehicle ahead and realized that this was something different,” he said. “I thought ‘this looks like an assassination’.”
He yelled at his driver to get them out of there and as the vehicle began reversing rapidly, the gang members started shooting at them and bullets were careening off of and through the vehicle. Checked after the incident, the driver counted more than 150 bullet holes in the Land Rover.
Despite the mob surrounding them, Dr. Burbella’s vehicle managed to get turned around and they attempted to make a run for it.
“One of the tires was completely shredded,” he said. “We could barely make five or 10 miles an hour.”
Soon a couple of gang members on a motorcycle overtook them and Dr. Burbella, looking out of the window and realizing the rider on the back was aiming a machine gun at them said to his companion ‘when I say duck, duck.’
“That is the last thing I remember before everything went dark,” he said.
It was at this point that he found himself floating in the air, looking down at himself and the people surrounding the vehicle. “I yelled out that I was shot, but nobody seemed to hear me,” he said. “It was then that I realized that I must be dead. I yelled out that I was dead, but of course nobody could hear me.”
It was then that Dr. Burbella decided to speak to someone he knew could hear him at any time.
“I was thinking about my wife and my son, I said to God ‘they need me, this can’t be my time, there are a lot of miles left on my sneakers yet’.” Dr. Burbella went on to promise that if God would spare his life he would dedicate the rest of his days to doing God’s work. “I said put me back and I will serve you until the day that I die,” he recalled.
A few moments later he came to but realized that he had still better “play possum.”
“I made a face and slumped over,” he said. “The window was smashed and one of the men placed his gun muzzle against my head, I figured he was going finish me off.”
It was at this point that someone Dr. Burbella described as “an angel” appeared beside the vehicle and intervened.
“My friend was crying and pleading with them and the man put his hand on his shoulder and said in perfect English ‘be calm.’ My friend said that he felt a wave of calm flow down his body,” recalled Dr. Burbella.
At the urging of the new arrival the gang members put down their guns, but the missionary members were not out of the woods just yet.
“They climbed right on top of my body and took my wallet with $11 in it and my cellphone,” he said. “They didn’t get the $2,000 clinic payroll I had stuffed down the front of my pants though.”
An argument then broke out between the missionaries, the villagers and the bandits. “The bad guys wanted the new truck but the villagers were telling them that they needed to get me to the hospital and that we were there to help the villages with the clinic,” he said. Eventually the bandits relented and Dr. Burbella, bleeding profusely from his wounds, was transported to an aid station where he was stabilized. “My friend was laying on the computers in the back storage area and keeping pressure on my neck so I didn’t bleed out,” he recalled.
“It was actually a Canadian aid group called HERO that transported me to the hospital in Port Au Prince and then from there to the Lear jet for the flight back to the States.”
What followed was 30 hours of surgery in a Del Ray Beach Florida hospital and two months of convalescence in the hospital. Three operations later, Dr. Burbella said that even one of the surgeons began to believe in God. “They couldn’t figure out how the bullet managed to go around my carotid artery to lodge in my spine,” he said.
Dr. Burbella is still wearing a brace to keep his neck stabilized so the fracture can heal, but he is determined to fulfill his promise to God and return to his ministry in Haiti.
“God willing I will be going back August 31,” he said.
Today, Dr. Burbella’s son wears the mangled copper jacket from one of the bullets on a chain as a memento of the time God spared his father’s life.
There is a GoFundMe account set up to assist with the considerable medical bills that remain from the incident as Dr. Burbella did not have insurance to cover the injuries from the attack. A video online at Vimeo ‘Man on a Mission’ details the aftermath of the attack.