Davidson experiences helped Tom Frist ’67 awaken his interest in international service, especially to people affected by Hansen’s disease (leprosy).
He says he’s “just an old southern boy from Mobile, Alabama,” and once that boy started to see the world through opportunities offered by Davidson, the way he imagined his own potential for impact changed forever.
France as a junior; India as a post-Davidson Fulbright Scholar. He later completed graduate studies in public health at Yale University, in not-for-profit management at Columbia University and in business administration in the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School.
“In India, I saw leprosy for the first time,” Frist said. “There were all these beggars, and they were very poor – some of them in Rishikesh living almost worse than the way dogs lived. I vowed one of these days I would do something to help them.”
And help, he did.
After Frist married his wife, Clare, who grew up in a family dedicated to international service, he received an offer to set up a pilot research project sponsored by the American Leprosy Missions, the Pan American Health Organization and the Ministry of Health of Brazil. The couple moved to Brazil, intending to stay for three years. Three turned into 15, adding two children along the way.
Out of this research, Frist developed a plan called PRO-REHAB, which had as some of its goals the integration and transformation of a large leprosarium into a training center for Latin American leprosy workers, setting up deformity prevention programs in government health centers and transforming a settlement of people affected by leprosy into a “normal” suburb. It was a pilot program to show that, despite its stigma, leprosy-affected people could, and should, be treated alongside other people.
“With leprosy, you can prevent most of the disabilities and teach those prevention practices to health centers and people with the disease,” said Frist. “When we started our pilot project, the disease had undergone a radical change. We now had a cure in the form of three pills, and people on treatment were no longer considered contagious.”
As another part of the PRO-REHAB plan, Frist founded and then directed an integrated rehabilitation program for all types of people with disabilities named SORRI, which became a national organization with eight centers and branches throughout Brazil.
The work did not end when the couple moved back to the United States in the late ’80s. Since then, Frist has served as the president of the American Leprosy Missions and the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations as well as the director of an economic development program in Nicaragua and as a consultant around the world. Somewhere along the way, he found time to write scientific articles and nine books, most of the latter self-published. Three of these were novels, and one summarized the sermons of his father, a Presbyterian minister who died when Frist was only 14.
At the time of Frist’s first encounter with leprosy, there were approximately 12 to 15 million people in the world with the disease. Today, there are around 300,000.
One of Tom’s books, “Be Good, Do Good,” explores strategies from a Christian perspective in trying to make the world a better place, despite inevitable failures. In the acknowledgements, he wrote, “One of the great joys of life is the realization that people do good to us all of the time. We are all blessed daily by small and large acts of kindness from family, friends and strangers—those who have gone before us, and those who are with us today. They inspire us with their examples, counsel us with their wisdom and supply us with our needs.”
While working to serve populations with leprosy and disabilities, Frist and his wife have also long had a dream of establishing a Christian retreat and study center on their farm in Brazil. Making it a reality is their current project.
No matter the avenue, for Frist, it has always been about trying to follow the two great commandments of Jesus—to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to ask forgiveness for one’s many failures in doing so.
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