By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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Before joining DWB full-time, Frawley worked in Long Beach Memorial Medical Center’s ER and pediatric-intensive-care units for 16 years. She was also a pediatric-home-care nurse and often brings up Eddie Lopez, a cancer-ridden boy she took care of during four of his six years of life. “He was incredibly calm,” she says. “He wasn’t afraid of dying.”
One evening in the ER in the mid-1990s, a colleague told her he was going down to Guatemala with HELPS International, a Texas-based aid organization. “I hadn’t heard of Doctors Without Borders then,” she says. At that point, she had never been out of the country. She joined her colleague and made her first international aid trip, helping to establish surgical units in remote parts of the Central American country. “That was it,” she says. “It lit my fire. I kept going, using up all of my vacation, sometimes going for a month at a time.”
She eventually learned about DWB from a friend, but she wasn’t familiar with the organization’s protocols. When Hurricane Mitch ripped across the coast of Guatemala in 1998, Frawley put a call in to DWB and told them she had found people to cover her RN shifts and could leave at any moment. The woman on the other end of the phone politely told Frawley to please fill out an application and wait to hear back from administrative staff.
“I was like, ‘Forget you!’” she says. “It was my own naivete.” But within two days, she stocked up on donated water from Trader Joe’s, pharmaceuticals and plastic tarps and purchased her own ticket to Guatemala. “I had a contact there who I’d found,” she explains. She went down on her own for a couple of weeks and worked at a clinic, but when she returned, she decided to approach DWB more methodically and was soon called in for an interview in New York City.
“These were the stepping stones,” she says. “I think it’s critical that people do stuff like that, you know? A lot of people run up and say, ‘I can do it!’—but have they done the footwork? What’s it take to leave your family, your friends?”
Her first six-month mission was to Sri Lanka in 1999. It was a bit much to get time off, so she quit Long Beach Memorial. Then, once in Sri Lanka, she extended her post to nine months.
Frawley weaves vigorously between stories about tracking down children for measles vaccines in the remote Himalayan villages of Tajikistan, treating 400 child soldiers during their disarmament in Sierra Leone, and propping a bed up under a mango tree for a man who was suffering from the deadly and highly contagious Marburg virus in Angola. “He wouldn’t stay in the ward. He was in a lot of pain because this starts out as joint pain, then fevers and bleeding,” she says. “So I said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make it special for you.’ The team set him up under the tree with a little radio. It was the Marburg Morphine Mango Tree! We’ve got a great picture of him waving. And he survived.”
With DWB medical teams, Frawley has worked among Ebola, Marburg, malaria and cholera outbreaks; trained local nurses, midwives and community health workers; set up feeding centers for malnourished kids; carried out measles-vaccination programs; and worked in surgical, maternity and pediatric wards. She survived a bad bout with a particularly lethal strain of malaria (“I highly recommend, as a learning experience, that you take the malaria prophylaxis if they tell you to”). But she’s especially pleased with the outcome of the Marburg experience. The virus can cause people to bleed to death from multiple orifices within hours of contact and is often treated like HIV was in the early days, says Frawley. Medical teams who treat Marburg must wear full protective gear akin to Dustin Hoffman’s super-suit in the film Outbreak. “It’s a virus that attacks everything,” Frawley says.
“But I was with a team that said, ‘You know, we trust our outfits, we trust each other, we trust the protection mechanisms that we’re using, but we’re gonna do it differently.’ We went in, and with the national staff, we taught them how to do nursing care,” she says. For the first time, patients were washed, touched and given IVs, fluids and medications instead of being quarantined to die. “We had great success. Some of them walked out. Perhaps the strain was not as strong toward the end of the epidemic, maybe it was a bit of a flap, but we changed protocols for how you treat patients,” which in the end, Frawley says, was important.
“She was very willing,” says former mission director Golden of Frawley’s desire to go into the most remote and often more challenging situations. “She was always the one who wanted to be really close to the people who were suffering.”
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Beyond the massive Moreton Bay Fig tree in front of San Diego’s Natural History Museum one recent evening, a crowd has gathered just after sunset to hear what these border-hopping doctors and nurses have to say about their adventures. Frawley cradles a necklace given to her by her goddaughter. She keeps this necklace—along with ones from her sister and from nurses in Sri Lanka, a bracelet from her parents, another from the Masai tribe in Kenya, as well as a few others—on all the time, even when running and swimming. “That way, they’re always with me,” she says.