Doctors Without Borders' Mary Jo Frawley Lives in OC, But Her Heart's in Sri Lanka, Somalia . . .

Good Medicine
Mary Jo Frawley of Doctors Without Borders may live in Sunset Beach, but her head and heart are in Sri Lanka, Somalia, Mexico, Angola . . .

Several weeks ago, a colleague of nurse Mary Jo Frawley handed her a short New York Times news story that read like an afterthought: “A woman was stoned to death on Monday in an Islamist-controlled region of Somalia,” read the three-sentence brief. The young woman had said she’d been raped and was promptly charged with adultery by the religious extremists in control of the region, and then killed. For Frawley, the information was dizzying. “I was just there,” she thought to herself. “How could that be?”

Frawley, 53, is a kind of collector of lessons, paying close attention whenever and however she can to what someone in front of her or some new experience may be teaching her. “We were there to take care of them—to take in those women who had been raped,” she says about the six months she spent working as a nurse near a string of Somali refugee camps late last year and early this year for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize-winning international medical humanitarian organization she has been active with for nearly a decade.

Jennie Warren
At Doctors Without Borders refugee camp exhibit in Santa Monica, Frawley explains the various dense food sources given to malnourished children and adults in the camps
Jennie Warren
At Doctors Without Borders refugee camp exhibit in Santa Monica, Frawley explains the various dense food sources given to malnourished children and adults in the camps

She knew the women were taking big risks to see the medical teams, but she hadn’t realized they were endangering their lives—including violent retaliation from the radical militias. “The fact that women were coming in to see us and the fact that people knew what was going on was a big risk. The confidentiality was so big, and I had no idea how big it was until I see this in the paper the other day, of what these women were risking, to come in and say, ‘Mary Jo, this happened to me, and really, I’m not a bad person.’”

When you meet her, Frawley might shake your hand and not let it go for a few minutes; she might suddenly remember her time in Sri Lanka and how much she liked that people there spoke to one another without letting go. Or she might show you how in Nigeria, you greet by lightly padding shoulder to shoulder; elders get more pads. “I’d get nine of those,” she says, laughing. “That tells you how old I am.” Frawley has the ability to extract something curious from the most mundane of activities—like shaking hands—and blend it with some other faraway moment in which something was learned or shared. In these brief instances, she brings together her often disparate realities—many months spent in war- and disaster-torn corners of the world; short weeks during the year with friends and family in northern Vermont, Tucson or her “permanent” home in Sunset Beach—and makes them seem part of one cohesive experience.

On a hazy, pink, October afternoon in Santa Monica, where Doctors Without Borders (DWB) has propped up a simulated refugee camp against the city’s historic pier—the latest stop on a national tour meant to give latte-sipping beachcombers a glimpse into the organization’s hardscrabble work environment—Frawley walks buoyantly through a knot of tents depicting vaccination and child-nutrition stations, water-sanitation posts, latrines, and cholera-isolation areas. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, completing 16 missions.

Missions last anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year; Frawley has spent 75 months in the field. (Only about 10 percent of the organization’s 24,000 staffers work internationally, like Frawley; about 200 of those are American.) “Sixteen is really at the top end of the number of missions people do,” says Nick Lawson, director of Field Human Resources, of Frawley’s time with DWB. “She’s pretty adaptable to just about everything we do these days. She’s been in some very tight situations, that’s for sure.”

Lawson isn’t exaggerating. Although violent incidents are rare, DWB aid workers have been kidnapped, held hostage and murdered. Some have even become deathly ill from infectious diseases.

Frawley stares out at the Pacific Ocean as it rolls reliably onto the shore. She’s been back in the U.S. for three months—longer than usual—to oversee the touring camp and to visit with her mom, old friends and family. She gets up every day at dawn and runs about 8 miles before going for a swim in the ocean. She knows she’ll be traveling again soon, most likely to Haiti. “I’m just trying to get a sense for whether I’m the right match for what they need right now,” she says.

What she doesn’t say is that she has often been considered the right match for the extreme conditions DWB deploys its aid workers into because, as one of Frawley’s former mission directors, Rebecca Golden, puts it, “Mary Jo is unrelentingly calm.”

Frawley is small and lithe, tipping onto her toes and leaning in close when she talks. She gets even closer when she whispers (which is often), and then pulls back and grabs your arm when she breaks out laughing (also often). Her emotional range takes on parabolic dimensions, revealing a natural gift for the kind of storytelling that might entice a crowd of kids. She’s perennially at-home with and fascinated by children. “Kids are the ones who teach us. They’re the ones who know,” she says.

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