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

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."

Fareed flew to Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa, early in 1957. Standing a desolate world away from the stately elegance of Holmby Hills, Lambarene rated no stars in a tourist's guide. What it had was Schweitzer and a dusty, mud-walled village containing a jungle hospital for lepers.

Fareed worked in the leper village for months; one of his tasks was to help make a survey of intestinal and blood parasites. He also set up a bacteriological laboratory aimed at measuring antibiotic resistance and sensitivity.

The experience of working with Schweitzer made a deep and lasting impression. Fareed said: "He emphasized to us a reverence for all life and a need for self-discipline. This was important. I often had to struggle for self-control when I was working among the lepers. To be with them was a tremendously moving experience.

"Dr. Schweitzer also showed us that man can survive and be creative without such comforts as electricity, running water or even plumbing. The lesson that came through repeatedly was that a physical environment is less important than spiritual strength.

"He never had superficial reactions to unknown people. He knew that people who look strange or even frightening can be good people. He taught us that we might appear frightening or strange."

Accompanied by his wife, Fareed made four trips to work with Schweitzer. Fareed did not stop there. In Kenya he helped set up clinical laboratories in both Thika and in Riruta.

Their Missions Spread

In one country after another, from Africa to the Far East to Latin and Central America, the Fareeds carried on their missionary work, and they were occasionally accompanied by one or more of their four children, of whom two have become physicians.

"Wherever we went," Fareed said recently, "we gained greater understanding of the magnitude of the problems, primarily involving a lack of education and sanitation, lack of proper nutrition, lack of proper birth control methods, lack of communication. It became our objective to do something helpful in each of these areas."

For years, however, "It simply didn't occur to us that we could take shortcuts, we could expedite. Then one day we realized that instead of limiting ourselves to a one-to-one relationship to patients, we could reach many more people by means of a health communications program. For example, we found it tremendously helpful to our goal to spend a few days with radio and television people in various countries, with the objective of winning their agreement to broadcast our spot messages.

On the Village Level

"Our messages run only 15 to 30 seconds and they are aimed not at doctors--many of these places don't have doctors--but at the village level. We don't talk about immunization--that's not comprehensible to everyone--but about the need for such simple actions as boiling water . For perhaps 2 billion people in the world, that's an important message.

"There are places where mothers will take a jar of pure baby food and mix it with basin water, or muddy water out of a well--and the infant dies of dysentery.

"Dysentery--the worst child killer--is also carried by flies. We urge people to cover food, to bury garbage and dead animals, so flies will not have have places to breed.

"When we deal with nutrition, instead of using a term as such as protein, we talk about body-building foods, such as fish and eggs.

"For family planning we don't refer to birth control devices because, to many of these people, such devices are simply not available. So we explain that there is a safe time to have sexual relations.

"On disease prevention we've put together special messages that deal with taking polio vaccine orally, because it is available and nobody should have polio today. That message, incidentally, is aimed at U.S. audiences also, because we still have many kids who have not been immunized.

"Other disease prevention messages deal with sanitation in general and such things as hepatitis in particular: before eating and before touching food, wash your hands with soap and water.

"The messages are put together right here. We've had such fine professionals as Charlton Heston, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and others deliver the lines in various languages. They all donate their services, and of course their faces and voices are known all over.

Personal Shortcuts

"We take other shortcuts. The Carr Foundation does not hand out money, but we do provide the time and energy to achieve an objective. As a nonprofit organization of volunteers, we have very little red tape. We do not try to duplicate governmental efforts, but occasionally we can function more effectively because we can avoid governmental channels.

"One time, for example, working with the Dooley Foundation in northern India, funds from the United States were tied up in baffling bureaucratic ways by the Indian Central Relief Committee. I mentioned this to Dr. Schweitzer, who immediately wrote a letter to his friend, Prime Minister Nehru, and I delivered it personally. That letter enabled us to bypass the relief committee and to keep alive a mobile clinic that otherwise would have collapsed for lack of funds."

There were other shortcuts in Biafra. The Fareeds bought $300,000 of medical supplies at cost and, Fareed said, "We persuaded the French Red Cross to fly us in with the supplies. Then we saw to it that the supplies were distributed to needy people. We set up nutrition clinics where multiple services could be performed. We could see that while it was important to feed the children, once they were standing in line it required very little extra time to test them for malaria and sickle cell anemia.

"We also organized and trained a team of eight young men with Peugeots to go on a sort of milk run through village after village. We provided them with iron tablets and anti-malarials. They also helped to immunize children against measles and smallpox. The Peugeot milk run reached several million kids in just one year."

The Carr Foundation is deluged with requests for help. However, Fareed said, "There is a self-correcting element. About 95% of the requests are for money. We're not in a position to give money. So the deluge is reduced automatically to manageable proportions.

Focus on Self-Help

"We give top priority to getting our health messages broadcast inside the United States, because there are many places at home where people do not yet know the importance of such basic items as good nutrition and disease prevention and boiling water. And after that priorities go to other countries, because the opportunities are so much greater overseas. We also insist on self-help. We let people know we'll help them only as long as they try to help themselves. We're very straightforward about that. If a country refuses to do something on its own that would be reasonable in terms of self-sufficiency, we back away."

Martha Fareed died in late March of cancer, but her husband's missionary work goes forward. He seldom misses an opportunity to spread the word about the need for good health. A tennis buff, Fareed is physician to the Davis Cup team, and wherever he travels with the team, he takes time to carry a fistful of spot messages--including those recorded by movie actors and such tennis stars as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Charlie Pasarell--to local radio and TV stations.

Said Fareed: "My greatest frustration is with those station managers who do not have much empathy or imagination. We'll provide them with plenty of material, but sometimes they aren't inclined to give serious attention to material that's free. Perhaps they'd value it more if they had to pay for it. But I refuse to be discouraged. I just go to the next station manager and I keep trying. Do you see how it is with an obsessive-compulsive?"

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