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Robert Lesslie, slain doctor, saw ‘Angels in the ER’ and wrote hopeful stories of faith in tragedy

The longtime ER doctor and writer said he often saw God at work in tragedy and crisis.

FILE - This March 12, 2009 file photo shows Dr. Robert Lesslie in Rock Hill, S.C.  Authorities say a gunman, identified as former NFL player Phillip Adams, killed Lesslie, his wife and grandchildren on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 in Rock Hill.  Adams killed himself early Thursday according to a source who was briefed on the investigation. (John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

(RNS) — Robert Lesslie always tried to see God in everyone he met, even in the midst of tragedy and crisis.

“We are all God’s children,” Lesslie, a longtime emergency room doctor and Christian author told the Rock Hill Herald in 2008. “If you lose that belief in the ER, you can become cynical, disenchanted and mean-spirited. For me, that’s where faith comes in.”

The 70-year-old Lesslie and his wife, Barbara, along with two young grandchildren, were among five people killed Wednesday (April 7) at their home in South Carolina. Former NFL player Phillip Adams, who took his own life, has been identified as the gunman in the shooting.

“Lesslie’s lessons on faith were passed down to his children, as was evident in a statement from his family that law enforcement shared at a news conference on Thursday, a day after the attack. Even in their grief, the family said their “hearts are bent toward forgiveness and peace,” York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson told reporters. He said they were also praying for the family of Adams, a former NFL journeyman who authorities say shot and killed himself early Thursday after officers surrounded his parents’ home.

Leslie “Les” Stobbe, a longtime editor and literary agent who specialized in Christian publishing, told Religion News Service in an email that he first met Lesslie to talk about books at a South Carolina Denny’s in the late 2000s. At the time, Lesslie was a regular columnist for a regional edition of the Charlotte Observer and was hoping to turn his stories about life in the emergency room into a book.

Stobbe said he warned Lesslie “stories don’t sell” but agreed to represent him. After three rejections, editors at Harvest House publishers decided to take a chance on the project. At the end of a meeting, one of the editors suggested the title “Angels in the ER.”

That title and Lesslie’s hopeful stories in the midst of difficulties helped make the book a bestseller in Christian circles, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold. Lesslie would go on to write or co-write about a dozen books.

Strobbe said that Lesslie wanted to take the fear out of going to the emergency room and wanted to “love people as God loves us.”

“He had a charming personality that shone through the way he connected with patients,” Strobbe told RNS. “He gave intriguing details that made him come across as deeply interested in the plight of patients.” 

A new volume of Lesslie’s ER stories was completed earlier this year and is due out in August, said Bob Hostetler of the Steve Laube Agency, who became the late doctor’s agent about three years ago after Stobbe’s retirement.

Robert Lesslie wrote a number of books including medical help books and a series of books reflecting on real-life stories from the ER. Image courtesy of robertlesslie.com

Robert Lesslie wrote a number of books including medical help books and a series of books reflecting on real-life stories from the ER. Image courtesy of robertlesslie.com

He said Lesslie was “the ultimate Christian gentleman” whose bedside manner was “always positive and compassionate.”

“His wheelhouse was positive, uplifting stories of God showing up in or through human interactions, in times of crisis,” Hostetler said. “I think God’s grace and kindness just shone through him.”

In the introduction to “Angels in the ER,” Lesslie wrote about life being fragile and said that “humility may be the greatest virtue.”

“I have also come to believe that there are angels in our midst,” he wrote. “They may take the form of a friend, a nurse, or a complete stranger. And on occasions, they remain unseen, a subtle yet real presence that instructs, comforts, and protects us.”

In a Thursday message to congregants, pastors from the Lesslies’ church, First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Rock Hill, wrote that all four of the Lesslies “are in the presence of Jesus and worshipping Him face to face. One day we will see them again. Therefore, we can grieve as those who have hope.”

The church planned to keep its sanctuary open until 8 p.m. Thursday, for anyone wishing to pray. Per church officials, no funeral arrangements had been finalized.

According to Lesslie’s author website, he spent more than 25 years as an emergency room doctor. He and his wife had four children and five grandchildren. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.