Human disasters wash over us. Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, famine. We stare at the images on television, write some checks. We move on. What’s next? From time to time I tell people I covered the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that killed 10,000 people (maybe 15,000—estimates vary) and they blink and stare. That was so many tragedies ago.
Some rush in to help. Some (celebs?) make a splash. Some come and go. And others stay. Ophelia Dahl and Partners in Health are there for the long haul. Their mission is, quite simply, to do “whatever it takes.”
From the PIH web site: “When a person in Peru, or Siberia, or rural Haiti falls ill, PIH uses all of the means at our disposal to make them well—from pressuring drug manufacturers, to lobbying policy makers, to providing medical care and social services. Whatever it takes. Just as we would do if a member of our own family—or we ourselves—were ill.”
In this slim, tantalizing profile “The Fair Ophelia,” Ted Conover gives us a glimpse of the woman who leads this unflappable organization—one that, as Conover puts it, has “challenged the world’s public health experts to recalibrate notions of what’s affordable or reasonable for the poor, asserting, in so many words, that we can do a whole lot better.”
“The Fair Ophelia” begs for a full book. We get Conover’s trademark eye for detail—the string between a Haitian child and a kitten’s neck, the pink paisley bandana on the head of an anesthetist with a dark mustache. We get Conover’s inviting prose, which opens the door to a story in such an easy way that we feel welcomed and placed smack in the scene itself.
But these staccato moments are a tease. We learn about Ophelia Dahl’s parents—children’s book author Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. We get a taste of Ophelia’s upbringing and a quick glimpse at the relationship between Ophelia and Paul Farmer, who is PIH’s “public face.” We get a sense of the cult-like staff that surrounds Ophelia and a sense of how the organization functions but, like how all good journalism, we want more.
Let’s hope that’s in the works. In the meantime, for $.99 we get a Kindle-only “single” and a taste for the leadership and personal style of this unique figure. I’d gladly pay more for a full “LP.”
Ophelia Dahl is out there on the fine line between life and death in the battles over public health in desperate communities around the world where “to be, or not to be” isn’t within each individual’s personal control. Ophelia Dahl and PIH are saying, it’s up to us.
(Yes, Ted Conover is a friend. I stand by every word.)