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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Phyllis Cavens ’61 serves as a doctor to the world

By Laura Gifford

Dr. Phyllis Cavens '61
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.

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 possible.

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 organization.

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.”


Pacific Lutheran University Scene
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