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By Charles Lam
“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.
It took DWB two years to get into Somalia. Once there, in late 2007, the team assembled a hospital in a bombed-out Italian building, but it was condemned soon after. They found another location and began to rebuild surgical and maternity units. “We had just finished renovating this nice area for the maternity ward,” she says, trailing off. She stares harder into the picture, kicks her running shoe into the ground and clears her throat. “Yeah, wow . . . we were just gonna start with the ward, and everybody was ready for it. Huh. And then. Then came that moment in time.”
On Jan. 28, just after lunch, a vehicle carrying two of Frawley’s colleagues in Mogadishu exploded in front of the car she was riding in. A roadside bomb was detonated as the vehicle drove past, killing Frawley’s French, Kenyan and Somali colleagues. A prominent Somali journalist walking down the street near the car was also killed. “‘It was targeted.’ ‘They killed us.’ ‘They were looking for someone,’” she says. “There were a lot of theories. We’ll never know.”
Those remaining, including the fiance of one of the victims, were evacuated hours after the explosion. “The organization was remarkable,” she says. “They got us out quickly and allowed us to attend all of the funerals. They brought in mental-health specialists and just let us talk and talk. I was lucky that I have some incredible friends who allowed me to talk about it. I needed to. We were all in shock.”
But she wasn’t home for long. “I needed to go back out, so I took a mission in Nigeria where I would be working with children again. We would be visiting homes and be outdoors,” she says. “I needed to do it. It was what helped me heal.”
* * *
Frawley appears in an episode of Doctors Without Borders: Life in the Field, a 2003 National Geographic TV series. She’s sitting in a jeep in war-torn Sierra Leone, traveling along crumbling red-clay roads to visit patients in village clinics. She sees someone on the road and blows kisses. “Stop, stop, stop!” she says to the driver. Someone hands her a pineapple from the road, and she gets out. “How’s the pikni? How’s the pikni?” Frawley asks, smiling at the mom and the baby she helped to deliver. She tells the baby’s mother to keep him warm because the rainy season is coming, and then she hangs out the window waving as they drive off.
Frawley never had any children of her own—she never married, and menopause hit surprisingly early. But she’s found the lesson there, too: “I’m coming to a level of acceptance that I will probably never have any children of my own,” she says in the segment, “but there are plenty to bring into my life.”
Near the end of the segment, Frawley stares out of her car window in Sierra Leone, closes her eyes and lets the wind wash over her. “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. She and her colleague John Komora, a nurse from Sierra Leone, have treated a newborn baby, his ailing mother and a severely malnourished 3-year-old. The experiences chronicled in the segment represent only a fraction of an endless string of stories.
“Each experience has really been so full and its own complete thing,” says Frawley, reflecting on her work while back home in Sunset Beach. Re-adapting to life in the U.S. after every mission has become easier over the years, she says. “After my first mission in Sri Lanka, I came back with ‘the Look.’ I’d be in a conversation with some friends, and my eyes would drift above their heads, and I’d keep hearing in my head, ‘Don’t you know?’ I’d hear it whenever someone would talk about their manicures or complain about their car breaking down,” she says. “‘Don’t you know that children are stepping on land mines and having their arms and hands blown off right now?’”
But the last thing she wants is to become an angry, ranting ex-pat. “My life is no different than anyone else’s,” Frawley says. “I’ve just chosen to do this with mine.”