SUFFOLK, Va. - A well-known surgeon died this week in a car crash, and Thursday night News 3 sat down with his family and those who knew him best.
65-year-old Joseph Craig Merrell died when his 2015 Audi Q05 struck a tree on Route 58 in Suffolk on Tuesday.
Police believe Merrell was traveling eastbound on Route 58 when he tried getting onto the ramp to northbound I-664, but instead, ran off the roadway, down the embankment and struck a tree.
His family is remembering the man who served his loved ones, the church, his patients and those he came in contact with.
“Family is everything, and when I think about my dad, love is the defining characteristic that I can say about him,” said his son, Michael Merrell.
Loved ones say his mission was to serve others, which is how he spent his entire life.
“Daily acts of service are something that we should all do, and that is something he taught us,” said Thomas Merrell.
“Craig was a unifier. That’s what he did. He brought people together,” said Joseph's wife, Teresa.
Dr. Merrell leaves behind six sons, two daughters and 17 grandkids - and there are two more on the way.
“A mountain of a man who walked around finding people and bringing that joy, that light of love and service into everybody’s lives,” said Michael.
News 3 interviewed Dr. Merrell about skin cancer prevention last summer. With a family history of skin cancer, he examined News 3 reporter Margaret Kavanagh and removed several moles, including one that proved to be problematic last January.
His family said he served as a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and was a devoted follower. They said they will see him again and said their strong faith is helping them through this extremely difficult time.
He was also one of the first plastic surgeons to volunteer with Operation Smile and played a vital role in their organization. Operation Smile issued the following statement after Merrill's death:
The Operation Smile family mourns the passing of one of its own. Dr. Craig Merrell was a credentialed Plastic Surgeon volunteer and Team Leader on 25+ Operation Smile missions in the 1990s and early 2000s. He also served as the Chief Medical Officer for the organization. Without a doubt, Dr. Merrell was exceptional in every way. His passing is a huge loss to his family and the community. Dr. Merrell introduced microsurgery to Vietnam and was with Operation Smile on our first mission in 1989. For more than a decade, Dr. Merrell taught microsurgery to plastic surgeons in North and South Vietnam, under Operation Smile, resulting in sustainable centers in those areas. He touched so many with his commitment and talent to serve others. All of us will miss him. All of us are stronger people today because of him. Our love goes out to his family and his patients.
News 3 interviewed William P. Magee Jr., the founder of Operation Smile, on Thursday.
He described Merrell has a remarkable man who was brave and giving.
“We did a lot of fascinating things together - not only in this area, but around the world through Operation Smile,” said Magee.
He said together they worked side-by-side with the Vietnamese to operate on kids with cleft lips and cleft palates.
For years, Dr. Merrell taught Vietnamese doctors microsurgery and would go back year after year and provide updates on new treatments, according to his family.
Magee said they worked in a time when tensions were high between the United States and Vietnam. He said their work of helping so many children helped mend relationships with the two countries.
He said Merrell played a major role in improving the situation.
“He was willing to go outside the box and do things that most people wouldn’t,” said Magee.
Dr. Merrell traveled the world to treat patients and sometimes brought his children with him
“It was honestly the greatest thing we could’ve done because right off the bat the boys learned that life isn’t like this in other places and other countries,” said Teresa. “They came home different. They came home having different dimensions of being part of this planet, but you don’t have to go to Romania, Kenya, the Philippines to learn that. You just have to look around because people are in need everywhere you look if you open your eyes and you open your heart, and that’s what Craig showed all of us.”
Thursday, they laughed and shared memories like when at age 3, one son wrote his name with a rock on a family car.
He said it was one of the few times he saw his dad mad.
“Craig loved people. He just loved people. It didn’t matter your station in life, and they knew it. They absolutely knew it,” said Teresa.
He was a world-class surgeon who led by example. His family said he served often and constantly. He was admired and loved by many in Hampton Roads and around the world and will be greatly missed.