Saturday, January 1, 2005

Dr. Smith provided care, compassion to Vietnam

by Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the late 1950s, Dr. Patricia Smith, a Seattle native and University of Washington Medical School graduate, moved to the central mountain region of Vietnam and opened a hospital that was staffed mostly by Europeans and volunteers.

Her work affected people all over the world, not only those she treated but also the caretakers and physicians she inspired to follow her path, said her son Wir Smith, who, along with his older brother, Det, were adopted by Dr. Smith before she left Vietnam at the end of the war there.

Dr. Smith died Dec. 26 in Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia at age 78.

"She was an amazing person," said Wir Smith, a Seattle musician. "She was really a little like Mother Teresa."

In the wake of Dr. Smith's death, he said, the family received hundreds of messages from people about her impact on their lives.

After graduating from medical school and completing her residency, Dr. Smith felt incomplete, her son said. She read about an opportunity to work with lepers in Vietnam for two years, and she jumped at it.

"She said it was the most rewarding thing in the world," Smith said. "She fell in love with the place."

Dr. Smith had gone to Vietnam's Kontum region, according to an article in Vietnam magazine, and opened a hospital with funds from International Catholic Relief and the Society of Friends.

Initially, she was greeted with skepticism, the article said. The people had long relied on their own village leaders for healing. But their attitudes changed after she cured the daughter of one elder, and in time she became trusted and loved.

Sick villagers were said to walk more than 100 kilometers, entire families in tow, to come to "Dr. Pat's" hospital.

Dr. Smith and her work have been chronicled in numerous articles, and she was the subject of a CBS television documentary. There even are pictures of her in the White House with President Nixon.

"But she didn't pay attention to it," her son said of the publicity "She didn't like to be in the spotlight."

Wir Smith said his mother had always wanted to have children and first adopted his brother, now a Navy dentist, and then him. Their biological mother had been killed by shrapnel when Wir was an infant.

"My father asked her to adopt me," Wir Smith said. "He wanted me to have a better life."

Dr. Smith and her boys returned to Seattle when South Vietnam fell.

She settled in Bellevue and worked for Group Health Cooperative for 20 years, retiring in 1997 and moving to Lake Cushman near Hoodsport, Mason County. There, she found time to indulge her love of murder mysteries and crossword puzzles.

Dr. Smith is survived by her sons and by her sister, Christine Smith, of Bellevue.

"Dr. Smith provided care, compassion to Vietnam", by by Christine Clarridge, Seattle Times staff reporter, published in the Seattle Times on Saturday, January 1, 2006.
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