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A Doctor Fulfills Her Mission: Ethiopia '85

August 27, 1986|DANA PARSONS

A week before she penned those words, Dr. Pamela Sutton lay in her tent in the middle of the night, listening to the howls of wild dogs and hyenas. In the distance, men and women wailed, and the gong of the nearby church rang nine times, signaling death in the village. Although sleep wasn't coming easily, the cool night air was welcome relief from the 104-degree heat of the day.

For Sutton, who spent her formative years amid plenty in Newport Beach, the mournful sounds would become all too familiar. This was Ethiopia 1985--a place and time where people were dying of starvation. As a doctor, she had seen death before, but in this faraway place, death was as predictable as darkness at the end of the day.

From late May until early September of last year, Sutton lent her medical expertise to the Ethiopian effort of Church World Service, an Elkhart, Ind.-based agency that provides relief and refugee assistance and is funded through the National Council of Churches.

At first fearful that her own medical training would be found wanting in such a life-and-death setting, Sutton learned that she could do the work--often ministering to 150 patients a day. More important, she fulfilled a lifelong conviction that she someday would help people in the Third World.

Last week, relaxing in her parents' Newport Beach home on her 38th birthday, Sutton talked about her summer of '85. It was an especially reflective week because Sutton was home to attend the 20th reunion of her Corona del Mar High School graduating class.

The African memories are particularly vivid. Every night in Ethiopia, writing by candlelight after a workday that began shortly after dawn, she wrote in a journal. Those memoirs have been published in "Ethiopian Journal," a $7.95 paperback published by Sherwood-Spencer Publishing Co. of Newport Beach and available at several local book outlets.

Sutton, a petite woman who still walks with a slight limp caused by polio during childhood, said it was a privilege, rather than a sacrifice, to live in such perilous conditions.

She had more than one brush with the wilds and wildlife of Africa. On Aug. 7 she wrote:

Last night I killed a large scorpion that insisted on dancing towards me outside the shower tent. When he shook his stinger at me, I crushed him with a bottle of detergent. Not easy to crush, it was kind of awful.

But the journal goes far beyond a tale of life in the wilds. Rather, it is Sutton's daily account of both the depth of the famine and the bonds she developed with her ill-fated patients and the staff at the feeding center.

Her four-month stint as the camp's only doctor was a physical ordeal. She lost 15 of her 105 pounds, suffered from chronic diarrhea and contracted one debilitating cold after another. Saddened by the daily knell of death, she was heartened, too, by the miracle of saving lives.

One of the first patients she had met was a teen-age boy, Ali Mussa, whose small body was wracked by the effects of tuberculosis and a parasitic disease, schistosomiasis. Through her efforts, and those of a visiting television news team, she was able to obtain medicine from the United States to save the boy's life. She wrote, shortly before her departure:

I spent part of the day in the clinic . . . (Ali Mussa) has been fantastically well, gaining weight and looking better every day.

Her sense of mission had been inside her for more than 25 years. While gazing into a Pacific sunset one night, at about 12 or 13, she was overwhelmed with a vision of her own future. Suddenly, the reading she had been doing about Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Tom Dooley had come alive.

"For lack of anything else to call it, it was a religious experience," she said. "Something happened to me, and I never forgot it. I felt like I was called, like I was supposed to go, and I felt like I got asked to go."

The message didn't come with a precise destination, but she was content to learn and wait, earning her medical degree at the University of California, San Francisco. But by the time she finished her medical residency in Rochester, N.Y., about 15 years later, her medical future was, at best, a fuzzy picture.

Disillusioned by her residency's high-volume patient load, Sutton wondered how she could realize her dream of reaching out to help.

"I had this vision, which was very adolescent, of Albert Schweitzer holding the hand of a child in the middle of Africa and all this one-on-one personal care," she said. "Well, that doesn't square with reality, and by the time I finished my residency I figured that out."

Unsure of her direction, she went to London in 1977 and studied tropical medicine before returning to the United States to study nutrition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It was pretty crazy to be 28 or whatever I was at that point, to have all this education and not want to use it. I had to find some way to use it."

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