If you're a friend of 83-year-old Lillian Rachlin, you can count on getting amazing Hanukkah cards: Rachlin, scuba-diving in the Red Sea two years ago; cradling a baby orangutan on Borneo in 1986; standing like a little porcelain doll between two tall Somalians at a hospital in war-torn Mogadishu in 1991; and wrapped in the arms of the mayor of Dobczyce, Poland, who showed his appreciation for her work teaching English to local children in 1995 by whisking her off the ground.
"People look forward to those cards. They want to know what I did during the year," says Rachlin, a Los Angeles resident and retired surgeon, teacher and hospital chief for the Veterans Administration (now called Veterans Affairs).
Diminutive, wispy-white haired Rachlin doesn't cook and never married or had children. (With 12 grandnieces and grandnephews she never needed to, she says.)
She can rock-climb and sky-dive, she flies all over the world without feeling jet-lagged and she exercises at a gym when she isn't on the road. In her study hangs a map of the world with pins stuck in the scores of countries she has visited and this quote from Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
A love of history and religion sparked her desire to travel soon after she finished her degree in 1942 at Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Hahnemann University School of Medicine) in Philadelphia, her hometown. She joined the VA and moved west in 1959, became one of the first women in the system to be a chief surgeon and represented the VA at medical gatherings as far afield as Moscow, where she loved going to the theater and opera in her hours off.
Working for the VA gave her some latitude. In the early '70s she left for two years to consult at a private hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, then spent three months traveling around the world alone on her way home. On her return, the VA quickly rehired her, which is how she ended up in Los Angeles.
She settled down for a while, but learned from her time abroad that she eventually wanted to work in Third World countries. "If I was paid, that would be fine. If not, I'd volunteer," she says.
So in 1986 when she retired, Rachlin joined an Earthwatch Institute team working with the Orangutan Foundation International on Borneo. Stints with Minnesota-based Global Volunteers in Romania and Poland and with L.A.'s International Medical Corps in Pakistan and Somalia followed. Between work trips, she traveled and made friends wherever she went.
"I've never come home from a trip without at least one new friend," she recently told me over lunch at a central L.A. restaurant.
Question: How do you do it?
Answer: I smile a lot. I draw them out. They see I'm alone, so I say, 'Why don't we sit together at dinner?' And I write to everyone I meet at least once a year.
Q. Do you visit them later?
A. Oh, yes. Only once in a while do I have to pay for a hotel.
Q. Tell me about the year you worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
A. That was 1989. The International Medical Corps had built clinics near a big refugee camp in Peshawar, staffed with Americans to teach Afghans how to help the sick and wounded. I lived on a farm owned by a police chief and joined the local Rotary Club, even though it was a Muslim country and they didn't usually take women. I felt it was very important to get involved with the community. They will support you if you support them.
After Ramadan [Islam's fasting season] I went to the home of a Rotarian, who owned a pharmacy company, for a feast. His wife was a doctor but wasn't allowed to join us. And there was another doctor in Peshawar who wanted to try to get women trained in medicine. But religious fundamentalists disapproved, and [the doctor] was shot in the head.
Q. What kind of doctoring did you do?
A. I taught in Pakistan. I'm not qualified for certain things, like endoscopic procedures. But I can still do gunshot wounds. In Somalia I treated victims of the civil war. People were being killed in the streets of Mogadishu by young men with Kalashnikov and AK-47 rifles. The hospital where I worked had been trashed.
Q. That year your Hanukkah newsletter said, "There are three primitive operating tables covered with thin plastic pads, and only two functioning floor lamps.... Surgical instruments are old, limited in number and frequently do not work... and there is no oxygen." How did you manage?
A. As a doctor, I look at things the way they are and accept them. I keep an open mind, even about medicine. And I always carry lots of Wash 'n' Dries.
Q. When you taught English in Poland, you visited Auschwitz. What was that like?
A. I bawled like a baby. I also tried to find family in Ukraine. The last letter my mother got from them during World War II said they had to leave. We never heard from them again.
In Rachlin's living room there's a Buddhist prayer wheel, a St. Theresa statue and a wooden carving of a rabbi. "It's an ecumenical household," she says. "I'm not taking any chances."
Earthwatch Institute, 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754; Telephone (800) 776-0188 or (978) 461-0081, Internet http://www.earthwatch.org.
Global Volunteers, 375 E. Little Canada Road, St. Paul, MN 55117; tel. (800) 487-1074, http://www.globalvolunteers.org.
International Medical Corps, 11500 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 506, Los Angeles, CA 90064; tel. (310) 826-7800, http://www.imc-la.org.