A C I F I C L U T H E R A N U N I V E R S
I T Y
U M M E R 2 0 0 1
Phyllis Cavens ’61 serves as
a doctor to the world
By Laura Gifford
In 1979, after a decade of closed
borders, repression and systematic killings, news of Cambodia’s
“Asian Holocaust” leaked to the international media—and hundreds
of thousands of refugees began streaming into Thailand by any means
A LIFE OF SERVICE: Dr. Phyllis
Cavens ’61 comforts a child in Somalia during a 1992 visit
to the war-ravaged nation. This photo appears in “Being
a Pediatrician,”(Lake Publishing, 2000), a book written
by her husband, Dr. Travis Cavens.
First lady Rosalynn Carter paid a
visit to refugees in Sakeo, a Thai border camp. The desperate
needs she outlined in a Time magazine cover story prompted a Portland,
Ore. businessman, Ron Post, to call a press conference discussing
the refugee problem and call-ing for volunteers for a new relief
Dr. Phyllis Cavens ’61, a pediatrician
in the southwest Washington town of Longview, read the article
and heard Post’s press conference. Within two weeks, she was on
a plane to Thailand, and her 22-year association with the newly
formed Northwest Medical Teams had begun.
Since 1979, Cavens leaves her pediatric
practice in Longview to make war and disaster relief visits to
Ethiopia in 1985, Somalia in 1992, Honduras in 1998 and multiple
trips to Mexico and other areas where Northwest Medical Teams
has ongoing programs.
“Basically, the international relief
response begins as soon as CNN tells us there’s a problem,” Cavens
said. When Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, Cavens was there
within a week.
Once in a country, Cavens’ disaster
relief team coordinates with local agencies to determine which
areas are hardest hit. After traveling to those areas, Cavens
and her fellow workers make contacts with local officials.
Many of the cases Cavens sees while
on a war or disaster relief mission are directly tied to the disaster
at hand. In Honduras, for example, she treated pneumonia in people
who had lost their homes, diarrhea from contaminated water and
sores on the legs and feet of children who walked barefoot through
bacteria-laden mud after sewage systems flooded.
“The solution for diarrhea costs
10 cents,” Cavens said. “For pneumonia, we use penicillin—under
50 cents a shot. Very inexpensive medicine can do a lot. It can
save a life.”
In addition to disaster-related ailments,
however, Cavens sees dozens of children whose basic health needs
have not been met. In Honduras, a mother brought her 10-month-old
daughter to Cavens for an examination. One of the girl’s pupils
was completely white. Cavens knew the child was suffering from
retinoblastoma, or cancer of the eye, and needed an operation
to save her life.
Because Northwest Medical Teams had
already made con-tacts with local officials, Cavens was able to
coordinate additional assistance through a Catholic priest in
Morazán. After Northwest Medical Teams left, the girl and her
family were transported to the Honduran capital by Caretas, a
Catholic relief agency. The agency flew in an American surgeon
to remove the cancerous eye, saving the little girl’s life.
“That’s really why I keep going,”
Cavens said. “There’s so much acute need in these situations that
without care, children will die. Just being there and being a
pediatrician can save a life.”