“I’ve never done this before,” Frawley says before the discussion begins. “We’ll see.” Her outfit, a thin, gray, hooded sweater over a deep-turquoise blouse with a plunging V-neck is something a friend put together for her, she admits.

Before her interview with DWB in New York years ago, Frawley trotted down to the consignment shop and bought herself a bright-red Ann Taylor suit. She’d never worn anything quite like it. Usually, she sports a slight variation of the same thing: loose, ankle-length pants, a T-shirt, and either a hoodie or a fleece zip-up.

She was staying in some “two-bit” hostel in New York. She was nervous, not so much because she doubted herself, but more because she didn’t feel like herself in the suit. “When I walked in, they just gave me a look,” she says, laughing. “Thankfully, bless them, they’ve never told me what they thought of me in that first moment.”

Frawley in Montenegro, Mexico, where she completed a DWB public-health mission in 2002
Courtesy Mary Jo Frawley
Frawley in Montenegro, Mexico, where she completed a DWB public-health mission in 2002
Frawley with colleagues in West Darfur, Sudan, where she operated feeding centers and public health clinics in 2003
Courtesy Mary Jo Frawley
Frawley with colleagues in West Darfur, Sudan, where she operated feeding centers and public health clinics in 2003

The San Diego panel is moderated by a perky local radio reporter with a British accent named Alison St. John, whose credibility with the impressive lineup (all of whom sit with varying degrees of the same faraway look in their eyes) rests on a brief jaunt she had with the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. “I soon realized it wasn’t for me,” she says. St. John, who is probably not much older than Frawley, rattles off the list of some of the countries Frawley has worked in: Tajikistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Angola. “You’re very well-traveled!” she says cheerily.

Frawley whispers into the microphone at first. She’s uncomfortable with all the attention. St. John tells her to speak up, and Frawley pulls it in closer. She brings up Eddie Perez and the lessons, and St. John encourages her to move on to the international stuff.

Later in the evening, a man in the back stands up and asks what he refers to as an “ethical question.” “We’re living in an overpopulated world,” he says. “You’re working to keep people alive in these very, very poor countries when there really are not enough resources to meet the needs of the healthy populations.” So, he wants to know, wouldn’t those resources be better spent on healthy people, since the world is already overcrowded anyway?

A cool murmur swims through the crowd. The panelists squint up into the corner, trying to catch a glimpse, perhaps, of the man who asked the question that so completely misreads the nature of the organization’s work, which is founded on the premise that everyone—no matter their nationality, income level or political affiliation—deserves to live. They look at one another, trying to mask disbelief.

“That’s a really excellent question!” St. John says. “Did everyone hear that?”

The panelists whisper quickly to one another and decide that surgeon Sandra Freiwald will respond. “All of us here will be able to tell you that on a one-on-one, healing-to-healing basis, when you see someone who you have the ability to help, it’s impossible for me to walk away from that.” The audience applauds.

As the evening progresses, it becomes evident that none of the panelists harbors illusions of save-the-day heroism. They talk about sobering experiences in the field, of having both the blessing and the curse of being able to make medical and logistical decisions they would never be able to make in their own countries.

Frawley tries to explain why she keeps going back—and, whether or not she intended to, also addresses the “ethical” question asked earlier in the evening. She recounts a trip this past summer to Nigeria, where she was looking for and treating malnourished children. Often, she and her team members were invited inside villagers’ homes during the nutritional assessments for tea, despite what might be going on around them. And often, Frawley and her team members would stop and trade stories.

“That’s the kind of atmosphere I’m attempting to prolong, just to sit and listen,” she tells the group. “Just sit and be a part of it. Don’t be that type-A, hyper, ER nurse, which you know you can be. Just go ahead and spend time. That’s why I initially signed up with Doctors Without Borders—because I wanted to spend more time. I wanted to learn what it was like to be there. I wanted to be able to enjoy that cup of tea.”

People are people, Frawley often says, and whether she’s back home or in a remote village in Nigeria, it matters that everyone in the room take one another for who they are, that a real exchange occur, if for no other reason than to recognize their shared humanity.

*     *     *

Back in Santa Monica at the refugee-camp exhibit, Frawley points to a large photograph of a real Somali camp and the endless rows of cardboard igloos held together by flannel shirts, sarongs, blankets, newspapers and wire. She looks hard, not at the photograph, but into it. Her face crumples a little.

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