Kyle Sheets jokingly calls himself an overachiever “in a bad way.”
Others probably say his overachieving is a great thing, considering all he’s done and is doing. Friends and associates call him “special,” “entrepreneurial,” “amazing.”
Patients call him “Dr. Sheets.” This week, however, everyone can add “Humanitarian of the Year” to the list.
That honor will be awarded Sheets during the annual conference of the American Academy of Family Physicians in San Antonio.
Sheets, a modest man, acknowledges that he’s proud to be receiving the award, but what led to it makes him even prouder. Several doctors who know him nominated Sheets through the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, the state chapter of the American academy.
“That’s pretty special to me,” Sheets said.
And pretty amazing for a man who didn’t enroll in medical school until he was 42. And that was after dropping out of Abilene Christian University halfway through his senior year in 1973.
“My parents nearly killed me,” he recalled.
Twenty years later, after starting, building and selling a number of businesses, Sheets re-enrolled at ACU, earning a degree in biology in 1993. Four years later, he had a medical degree and began serving a residency at Via Christi Family Medicine Residency Program in Wichita, Kansas.
It was an experience during that residency that led to the Humanitarian of the Year Award.
The primary reason that Sheets, who lives with his wife, Bernita, on a ranch near Ovalo in south Taylor County, was nominated for and won the honor was for his establishing Physicians Aiding Physicians Abroad (PAPA Missions) in 2003.
The organization provides practical help to other physicians who want to serve medical missions. The vision began in Zimbabwe and has expanded globally.
The seed for PAPA was planted in 1999, when Sheets was serving his residency in Kansas. Residents could spend one month in Zimbabwe helping at a hospital and receive credit toward completing their residency.
So, Kyle and Bernita and their 10 young children all headed to that African country for a month.
Aat their own expense.
“We’re still paying for that trip,” Sheets joked.
Several of the children live in or near Abilene, including the youngest, Cori, a student at ACU. One son, Tyler, was killed in a car wreck in 2006. He was 19. The ranch the couple lives on near Ovalo is the “Flying T Ranch,” named for Tyler. His mother recalled that as a child, Tyler dreamed of riding on a flying horse.
Whatever the cost of the Zimbabwe trip, it was a priceless experience for the entire family, Kyle and Bernita agreed. Their first impression, Sheets said, was that if the Americans could just help those extremely poor people make money, they would be happy.
But it didn’t take long to see that a mistaken view, Sheets said.
“They are so much happier than we are now,” he said. “All they have is ‘right now.’”
They don’t waste time storing up material goods or worrying about tomorrow. All they are concerned about is “today.”
That experience never left Kyle and Bernita and when the time was right, they started PAPA. The purpose is to help other physicians who have a desire to serve but not the experience to make a mission trip of that magnitude happen.
Larry Anderson, a physician in Wellington, Kansas, was one such doctor. He had heard of Sheets because the clinic where he practices is affiliated with the residency program in Wichita, where Sheets served his residency.
In 2006, Anderson went on a PAPA mission trip to Zimbabwe and recalled that it was “quite an education.” He has since done mission work in Mexico. Anderson, a former member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians, put the bug in the ear of a colleague in Texas to nominate Sheets for the humanitarian award. No one is more deserving than Sheets and his wife, in Anderson’s mind.
“They’re special people,” he said, “and have been doing this a long, long time.”
A restless soul
If Kyle Sheets hadn’t been an overachiever, he most likely wouldn’t be getting the honor. In the 20 years between dropping out of ACU and returning to graduate, Sheets “overachieved” by starting, building and then selling business of all sorts from a fish farm to landscaping.
Joining him on that journey was his Bernita, a former ACU student. They didn’t know each other in school but were introduced by a friend. They married in December 1976.
“We kind of had a knack of starting and growing businesses,” Sheets said.
But always restless, Sheets began thinking about medical school, something he first considered as a biology major at ACU. He wasn’t ready then and dropped out instead. But the thought never completely left him.
So, at 42, he was accepted to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The couple at that time had eight children, and two more were born there. After graduating, Sheets was accepted into the family practice residency program in Kansas, which suited him well.
He had grown up in Farwell and was recruited to join a practice in Muleshoe, just 20 miles from his hometown.
“Small town practice is what I was cut out for,” he said.
Today, in addition to flying to Muleshoe or Zimbabwe or Guatemala, Sheets oversees the company he founded in 2001, Concord Medical Group. It is a physician-owned and operated organization that assists with staffing rural hospitals in West Texas and in three states besides Texas.
Even while raising the family in Muleshoe, and loving the small town life, Sheets kept thinking about that trip to Zimbabwe, which eventually led him to start PAPA.
Other doctors involved
Not even a close call in 2010 keeps him away.
He was operating on an AIDS patient when he cut his hand.
A daughter, Heather Sample, an anesthesiologist who lives in Houston, was assisting.
Immediately after the surgery, Sheets began a regimen of drugs to ward off the disease.
He suffered severe reactions to the drugs, which attacked his liver, and had to be flown back to the United States for treatment.
On the flight, Sheets started failing quickly and his daughter began sobbing.
“It was terrifying,” Sheets said. “I was sure I was dying.”
Two men asked if they could help. They were doctors–in fact, the plane was carrying 100 doctors who were returning from a conference on infectious diseases. Sheets eventually recovered fully and HIV tests were negative.
The story was included in one of Max Lucado’s books on grace. Sheets and Lucado, a prolific writer on spiritual topics, a pastor, and fellow ACU graduate, are friends. When Lucado learned what had happened, he immediately recognized an amazing story of grace.
Despite that close encounter, Kyle and Bernita Sheets return to Africa about once a year to the 150-bed hospital they serve. When they go, they take teams of physicians, medical students, some family members, and people who just want to help, all recruited through PAPA Missions.
“”I’m the cook,” Bernita chimed in, a job she is well equipped to handle.
Not only did she raise a family of 10 children, she still is the primary mover and shaker behind an annual Thanksgiving feast at the ranch, attended by their children and families, and occasionally, friends. In all, 45 or so spend the Thanksgiving holiday at the ranch, with everyone divided into teams for cooking and cleaning.
After purchasing the ranch, which included a sprawling, four-bedroom house and two-bedroom guest house, the Sheets built a bunkhouse which sleeps 22. And the barn sleeps another 12.
Nothing seems too big for Kyle and Bernita Sheets to conquer — not starting multiple businesses, raising 10 children, serving medical missions all over the globe, flying back and forth to see patients in Muleshoe while running a multi-state hospital staffing business, or hosting 45 people for a long holiday.
Some would say that’s overachieving in “a good way.”
According to the website for the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Humanitarian of the Year award created in 1997 “honors extraordinary and enduring humanitarian efforts both within and beyond the borders of the United States.”
Sheets had a family practice in Muleshoe for17 years and still flies there every couple of weeks in his own plane to see patients. In 1999, Kyle and his wife, Bernita, and their 10 children went to Zimbabwe for a month as part of the residency he was serving at Via Christi Family Medicine Residency Program in Wichita, Kansas. They were hooked immediately on medical missions.
In 2003, Sheets started Physicians Aiding Physicians Abroad (PAPA Missions) to provide practical help to other physicians who had a desire for medical missions. The vision began in Zimbabwe but since 2003, PAPA has sent hundreds of volunteers to six different countries and has shipped medical supplies worth millions to needy medical facilities around the world.
In addition to operating PAPA and practicing medicine, Sheets started Concord Medical Group in 2001. Concord is a physician-owned and operated organization that assists with staffing in rural hospitals in West Texas and in three states besides Texas.