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Farewell 00’s, Welcome 10’s! Top Story of 2009? Bringing Paula Home

Denis Campbell: And yet despite all their media noise about birthers, death panels and socialism, there was only one story that really mattered to this journalist, Bringing Paula Home. Paula Persechini-Petitti is a remarkable woman who travelled the globe for 17 years bringing medical supplies and healthcare to third or fourth world nations around the globe.

Good riddance to the noughts! It was a decade where snarkiness, fear and division triumphed over almost everything else. I say almost because when one reviews 2009’s top stories, Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the US presidency was inspiring, challenging, and filled us with globally healing headlines.


Yet the internal tone and level of anger inside the USA was frighteningly acidic, bile-filled and dangerous. Far-right blowhards of all stripes could not get their heads around the fact a black man was now the leader of the free world. Their wing-nut hate speech hit daily lows and caused great frustration for many.

And yet despite all their media noise about birthers, death panels and socialism, there was only one story that really mattered to this journalist, Bringing Paula Home. Paula Persechini-Petitti is a remarkable woman who travelled the globe for 17 years bringing medical supplies and healthcare to third or fourth world nations around the globe.

On the 23rd of June she was in the midst of her annual trek to bring critically needed diabetes screenings across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This Sioux Nation is roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut, spreads across several US states, has a network of very poor roadways and is filled with a level of poverty and neglect one usually only sees on documentary films about remote third world lands, yet sits inside the richest nation in the world.

With 50% unemployment and alcoholism rates even higher, this is one of the most neglected parts of the USA . When former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist (R-TN) said this summer on ‘Larry King Live’ that any government-run health option will “look like the mismanaged Indian Health Service,” it was the 1st time I could partially agree with a Republican Senator. I support the public option but agree the IHS is grossly mismanaged.

Were the IHS and, indeed, the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs well-functioning entities, Paula would not have been on the reservation that June night and would instead have been working in the relative safety of a third world nation outside of the USA.

Instead, she pulled over to offer assistance to a broken-down motorist and her car was rear-ended at 60 mph. The crash impact drove her brain stem up into her thalamus and caused bleeding inside her brain. The accident also crushed her leg and placed her in a coma for nearly a month.

Because she was injured 2,000 miles from her home, she entered a third world health insurance horror story. Just try to get healthcare from the “greatest system in the world” (parroted by Congressmen/women paid huge campaign sums to say so by insurance and pharmaceutical masters) if you really need it.

Paula needed to be immediately returned via a medical life-flight from the Cedar Rapids, South Dakota hospital. Her insurance though would not pay for the flight and instead left her warehoused miles from her home and family back in Boston .

The irony? Here was a woman who spent her life bringing medical supplies to help those in third world nations trapped in her own third world nightmare inside her own supposed first world country?

Local hospital staff stabilised and kept her comfortable. They were ill-equipped to handle traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Indeed Paula would still be in South Dakota today, six months later, were it not for a global network of friends who sprang into action. Upon hearing of the accident, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook buzzed with activity and raised $18,000 for Paula’s medical life-flight to Boston ’s Spalding Hospital, one of the best brain trauma hospitals in the world.

For the last five months, Paula underwent daily physical, speech and neurological therapy. 10 days ago she was transferred to a neuro-rehab hospital where her prognosis is good and recovery will be long and expensive. Many friends remain involved in fundraising to provide the $15-20K per month needed to give her care because her insurance falls far short of what is needed. And as many regular readers know I ran two road races this fall to raise funds for Paula’s care.

So this story (along with broader healthcare reform) continues on in to 2010 where I begin the next phase of my personal fund-raising for Paula. I will chronicle Paula’s journey in a book that tells the world ‘the rest of her story’ (apologies to radio’s late Paul Harvey). A significant portion of all book earnings will go to cover her medical care and, when she is better, to help restart the healing work of her organisation The Black River Project.

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Believe me when I tell you, hers has been one “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” of life to chronicle. Paula and I are from the same town in Massachusetts and if you told me in the late 70s that Paula’s life would include: yelling at Pol Pot’s ‘The Killing Fields’ Cambodian generals to provide mosquito netting to reduce malaria deaths or screaming incessantly at her Cuban prison guards and convincing them to release her because she was Raul Castro’s lover (not true) and they would indeed be in big trouble if he found out she was being held there… it will be a guaranteed page-turner.

It will be an honor to share this modern-day Mother Theresa with the thick Boston accent, lover of Heavy Metal rock and minus anything remotely resembling a nun’s habit with the rest of the world. Since Paula cannot yet herself tell the story, it will instead be told by the people around the globe who know her best because of how she has touched and transformed their lives.

We will reach out to those who worked, travelled with, befriended and supported her cause at all levels. The hundreds of doctors and medical supply groups she badgered and shamed into giving their time and old equipment. The nurses, med school students and volunteers who accompanied her. And those who cleared the way and quietly supported her: from former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan to legendary reggae musician Ziggy Marley to those closest to her friend the late Dith Pran (Killing Fields author and journalist) in Cambodia to Lakota Nation leader and Native American activist Russell Means.

Paula has touched and worked with so many around the globe to bring a higher standard of medicine and supplies to improve the lives of people with what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now.” Now it is time for us all to help Bring Paula Home .

And as we enter 2010, her work is needed more than ever. While this book will somewhat indict the US healthcare system, it will mostly look at a society that is just as broken and what we all must do in this new decade to stand up for and help what is most important, each other.


That is a lesson Paula still teaches us daily from her hospital room. The 10s will be a decade of change for us all and early in it Paula will come home and continue with us along this journey.

Have a Happy and safe 2010 and please take a few moments to see how far she has come and view these two video created her very dear filmmaker friends Werner Grundl and Julie O'Neil of Videosphere.

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell publishes the e-magazine, where this article first appeared.

Leaving Spalding Hospital stills set to Native American music.

Full-length farewell feature: