Dr. John Cheatham

Dr. John Cheatham, 1940-2009

Dr. John Cheatham, 1940-2009

Dr. John Cheatham passed away Monday afternoon, Nov. 2. He succumbed to a heart attack while climbing Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, USA. Hiking was a favorite recreational pastime. He recently climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and had made multiple trips to the Grand Canyon. This year, he completed a 50-mile hike from the canyon’s south rim to the north rim and back again with his brother and hiking partner, Jackson.

John was born in Griffin, Georgia, on Nov. 29, 1940. He graduated from high school at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta. After serving his country as a sergeant in the Army Special Forces, which included a tour of duty in Vietnam, he completed his undergraduate work at Georgetown University. Not content with traditional career patterns, however, he earned a commercial pilot’s license and then set out to travel the world. John frequently worked as a bush pilot in Africa and New Guinea. He seemed to show up in places of civil unrest, though always he denied any involvement in these affairs.

During this period of John’s life, there was a stint as a crocodile hunter on the Amazon. While in the region, he somehow persuaded his sister, Elizabeth, to accompany him on a 2,500-mile trip down the Amazon in a non-motorized dugout canoe. The trip started at the river’s headwaters in Peru and finished in Manaus, Brazil, where civilization then began. Along the way, there was a particularly troublesome encounter with an anaconda longer than the boat.

Briefly succumbing to conventional pressures, John returned to the United States and attended Columbia University where he received an MBA degree. Then followed a financial career abroad, but one in which he never felt fulfilled. Business was never John’s passion and he simply refused to live life without passion. Though John was never one to be imprisoned by what others thought he should do, it was not until his late 30s that John identified his life purpose and set out to become a medical doctor working with the poor in the underdeveloped world. He decided upon ophthalmology as a specialization, as he considered cataract surgery to be the most effective medical procedure in the poor world. He saw the opportunity to give sight to the blind who lived in areas too remote to be helped by others.

At that time, however, no one John’s age was ever admitted to American medical schools and he was rebuffed in his attempts to study medicine for years. However, John refused to give up his dream and spent 10 years struggling to overcome obstacles before finally getting his medical degree. Early on, he simply bought medical books and self-taught himself enough to pass Part 1 of the national medical boards and this before ever attending medical school. Then there were years of multiple schools in multiple countries, with his study of medicine including elements in French, Spanish, English and Portuguese. Eventually, two influential people recognized what John had to offer the world and took up his cause. They managed to bend rules to have him admitted to the Medical College of Georgia where he excelled. Quite likely, John is the only graduate of that school who never completed a single pre-med course.

John went on to practice ophthalmology for 20 years in the underdeveloped world. In that time he never received a dollar of salary nor charged a patient for the surgery received or for the all-important logistics that made the surgery possible. John had taken the time to learn the needs of the poor; he walked amongst them. He understood how difficult it was for the poor and blind of remote areas to find their way to medical facilities. Instead, he went looking for them, always contending that the surgical aspect was the easiest part of giving sight to the blind. John knew it took a lot of mud on the boots as well as well as good medical skills, and he was prepared to give both. Though he certainly never kept score, it seems safe to say that over 20,000 people regained their sight due to his efforts and the team he led.

John’s other interests over the years included flying, parachuting, judo, scuba diving, travel (people would try to name a country that he hadn’t visited), languages (he spoke 11 and many fluently), hiking, reading and the study of history. In May of this year, he embarked on his greatest adventure of all when he persuaded his longtime companion and often co-worker, Dr. Anne Schlueter, to marry him.

Many have said that John strongly influenced their lives. We know that his life example inspired quite a few people into medicine. Others considered him to be their mentor. All who crossed his path found him encouraging. Being around John just left one with the feeling that they could do better in their own lives and with the desire to want to try.

Throughout it all, John lived a simple life. He did not own a home, a car, or a cell phone. His possessions consisted only of a closet full of items at his mother’s home and that which he carried with him when he traveled. Yet with so few accessories, he accomplished so much. People often marveled at John’s life and asked if he would ever write an autobiography. This question he would laughingly dismiss, saying that too many people write books while too few read books. However, he did say once that should he ever change his mind, the book’s title would be A Life without Furniture.

On Friday, Nov. 6, in accordance with John’s wishes, he was cremated and his ashes scattered without ceremony or memorial. He wanted no flowers to be sent or donations made on his behalf.

A single life produces much radiance when that person follows his dreams, tries to do what is right and refuses to let obstacles stand in the way. John Cheatham did all that. The world is better for his having lived. We are better for having known him. Though his life may have ended too soon, it was a life complete in so many ways.
John is survived by his wife Anne, mother Elizabeth, sister Elizabeth, brothers Jackson and Harvey, nieces Lizzie and Anne-Marisa, and so many here and abroad who called him friend.

Publishers Note: This obituary was obtained at www.missioneyes.net/latest-news/1/457-a-life-without-furniture-john-cheatham-md-1940-2009 where you can read postings honoring Dr. John Cheatham from friends the world over. Friends in Guatemala can also add remembrances.

6 comments

  • Trinity Johannsen

    I am 34 years old, and hope someday to work abroad helping others!

  • Reading about the life of Dr. John Cheatham is very humbling. An extremely bright man who saved the eyesight of 20,000 people many in Guatemala. What a wonderful way to use his skills and experience. The world will miss him.

  • Nancy Lynn Gepfert

    I was just telling a friend about John because the last I heard he was working Haiti, and she was thinking about going there. I am sorry to hear of his passing and thankful for all he did. He was a pleasure to be around and a great gift to humanity.

  • Jytte Sørensen

    What a loss. First today sept. 1. 2011 I learn that John has passed. I consider myself to be a good friend of John, knowing him from Guatemala, where my husbond and I worked 10 years in medicin and communications. John stood by me, when I lost my husbond in Guatemala, and we met again later, when I visited Guatemala with friends. I am deeply sad knowing this wonderful man is not among us anymore. He was the best. If you read this Elizabeth I send you my deepest condolancies. I lost a dear friend, you lost a wonderful son.

    John, I will remember you for the rest of my life. Your friend Jytte, Copenhagen, Denmark

  • Ngaboyisonga Théoneste

    I’m very sad to hear that our friend John passed away,i remember him in Rwanda where he operated patients with cataract, May he’s soul rest in eternal peace.
    John,i’ll always remember you and of course will let know the patients you helped who recovered the sight.

  • Judy Dyer

    I met John in Antigua in 1991. These are some of my memories: I met him on the street; he was just coming from a place where a blind man lived. John visited him and would give him money notes with little cut marks or folds? so he could tell what the denomination was. He lived in his house with 2 long desks, one for business and one for personal interests. He also studied and played I believe it was a flute. He trusted me with a large leather bound book on the travels in Central America of some famous writer. (can’t recall the author) I would see him studying Q’eqchi’ at CIRMI, the library for study of Central America. He said it was very difficult because it had very few rules. We went to dinner one evening and he was so happy because a doctor from the States had brought him instruments small enough for operating on children’s eyes. Another time he was very upset because he had operated on a patient and somehow the patient had left with his relatives before he could give them the proper instructions for aftercare. I was traveling by bus through the terrible roads from Tikal to Guatemala City and the bus got stuck in the cray type mud. I could see buses and trucks that had gone over the side. It occurred to me that I could be in an accident and if lucky taken to a Guatemala City hospital and I had no idea how to reach the person who could have made sure I got proper care! So, when I got back I got John’s telephone number and kept it with me, just in case.
    I believe by the time I left, John had planned to leave Antigua and make a clinic in the countryside where many of his patients were from. I was so lucky to meet and be befriended by John, an exceptional gentleman! I have thought about him many times and related the story of him many times. I am so sorry he is gone. ….
    frankly he didn’t look that old when I met him. I am 73, and was the same age as John then. We were both “young”!
    Here’s a funny thought: he was so perfect that I thought he must be gay. But, no, he said he had a lady friend who visited him from time to time. The world lost a wonderful human.

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