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A Medical Missionary at Work : Dr. Omar Fareed Spreads Messages of Health Worldwide

May 28, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

"I'm an obsessive-compulsive personality," Dr. Omar John Fareed says, explaining his unusual career in medicine. "It's as if some creature had grabbed me by the throat and forced me. Something had to force me. It would have been much easier on my nerves, much less tense and agonizing, to practice a more conventional kind of medicine."

Deeply tanned and athletic, with a searching empathy evident in his hazel eyes, Fareed is a medical missionary whose patients are scattered around the world. They number in the thousands and they pay no bills. In many instances their lives have been saved by Fareed. "They make up the most heart-wrenching group on Earth," he said.

Fareed's obsessive-compulsive nature has led him to Lambarene, Africa, where he carried medical equipment into Albert Schweitzer's leper colony and helped put together a laboratory where about 200 lepers could be examined every week for related diseases.

A Memorial Clinic

Fareed also consulted closely with Tom Dooley on medical problems in Asia, and as a memorial tribute following Dooley's death Fareed set up and worked in a mobile clinical laboratory to help Tibetan refugees in the Himalaya mountains of northern India.

During the Vietnam War, Fareed made nine trips to that country, and he regularly aided refugees in Hong Kong. He also flew repeatedly into Biafra to help the starving, sick and wounded during that nation's struggle to hold out against invaders.

Nonstop travel to deal with crisis situations has its limits, however, and Fareed, 69, now conducts the major portion of his unusual medical practice from an office, surrounded by immaculately groomed lawns, shrubbery and an organic vegetable garden, on the grounds of his spacious home in Holmby Hills. The office, heavy with the antiseptic air of medical supplies and bulging with medical files, is the nerve center of Fareed's effort to uplift global health.

From his office, messages are beamed out dealing with disease prevention, drug abuse, family planning, nutrition, sanitation, dental and mental hygiene. The messages--recorded on tape by movie actors and other personalities--are 15- to 30-second spots for radio and television. Copies are sent without charge to broadcasting stations from Hong Kong to Kenya, India to Ecuador, Mexico to Malaysia. The entire project is staffed by volunteers, financed by Fareed, his family and friends.

Omar Fareed's abiding interest in health began during boyhood in Glendale. The son of a Persian-born psychiatrist who assumed a patriarchal role in his patients' lives--they lived at his home with the rest of the Fareed family--Omar readily followed his father's lead. "One of my duties as a teen-ager," he recalled in an interview, "was to look after the patients, talk to them, feed them. I grew deeply involved with their problems. When they suffered, I suffered.

"My father sometimes took advantage of my obsessive-compulsive personality, where there was housework to be done. He knew that if he asked me to wash the dishes or vacuum the living room rug, I'd spend an hour or two at it, doing a really thorough job. Or if he asked me to rake the leaves in the yard, which covered about two acres, I'd spend a lot of time getting every bloody leaf. My brother was much smarter. He'd give five minutes to chores like that. He didn't waste time on non-essentials. So I was the one my father usually called on to do jobs around the house."

As a youth, Omar often accompanied his father on visits to hospitals. Troubled by the pain and illness of others, carrying the burden of a keen sense of empathy and inspired by his father's devotion to patients, Omar studied medicine at the University of Chicago. He graduated at the head of his class in 1940, and following his internship the university hired him, at $1,800 a year, to be an instructor in internal medicine.

Later, he returned to Los Angeles where he entered private practice. When a dreamy, blue-eyed artist showed up at his office with measles, Fareed promptly fell in love with her. Martha Carr, born in the United States but reared in Europe, brought unexpected dimensions to marriage with Fareed.

He had been preoccupied with illness in the United States; she raised his sights to health care problems around the world. Martha also brought independent wealth; this enabled Fareed to quit private practice and, with Martha, to set up the Carr Foundation to promote health care wherever they could find ways to be effective.

'The Universal Language'

Fareed perceived medicine as "the universal language," and he became widely known as a specialist in tropical diseases. When he offered his services to Albert Schweitzer, the older man cabled: "We rejoice to have you amongst us and to profit by your knowledge and experience."

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