On the 20th of August 1968 at five o’clock in the morning, Paul Freitas was awakened by the sounds of shouting in the streets and a black clad soldier with an automatic weapon burst through the door of his room. A second-year Russian language student in a program supported by the Defense Department, he was studying in Kiev, Ukraine when Russia decided to invade Czechoslovakia. Over half a million Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country; Soviet tanks rolled through the narrow streets of Prague, crushing mostly student-led protests. All foreign students were ordered to leave the country. Forcibly taken and not knowing where he was going, he landed under escort in Eastern Ukraine, in Donetsk and from there was put on a plane and sent to Copenhagen.
As this gentle, bespectacled, soft-spoken man recounted his life story, I quickly learned that such an adventure was just part and parcel of this man’s life. With hindsight, it was just another story to tell. Born in Michigan, he grew up loving the water, ships of all kinds, and travel. He learned to sail on the Great Lakes, captain a sailboat and later became a kayak expert. His father, a flight surgeon, moved with assignments and the family spent time in Cuba and Florida.
But medicine was his passion. After studying at Notre Dame University, the University of Michigan and at the Middlesex Hospital in London, where he described the operating room as set up like a theater with bleachers all around so that students could see the whole operation. After exploring pediatrics, gynecology and radiology, he settled for the adrenaline rush of the Emergency Room. He was one of the 40 doctors who were the first in the country to obtain a degree in Emergency Medicines. There were only two residency programs in the country. Finally arriving in the Bay Area, some readers may have benefited from his services at SF General, Highland Hospital or John Muir. Early in his career he spent a great deal of his time on the road moving from hospital to hospital helping to set up new emergency departments.
But always a traveler, and with the spirit of an explorer, he was in the habit of just buying a cheap air ticket to some exotic place and then figuring out the rest of his unplanned itinerary once he arrived. In Kathmandu he found the Sherpa Cooperative who helped him trek with his new wife 17,500 feet up the Annapurna range in Nepal with no real preparation.
In such a demanding profession as Emergency Medicine, stress frequently leads to early burn out. Paul was lucky to be with a partnership that allowed him to take six months off after ten years of service, and six months again every five years afterwards. Paul utilized his vacation to time to do other things and frequently it was in joining a research team. On Easter Island he was a member of group studying rock art. In Sri Lanka it was studying the behavior of monkeys. In Costa Rica he followed Capucin monkeys through the jungle, recording all of their daily movements. In Uganda, it was the study of chimpanzees. In New Mexico he participated in an archeological dig. Deep in the Amazon jungle he helped measure caimans.
But always a doctor, Paul took a big break from the emergency room and became a doctor on a major cruise line. It suited his lifestyle perfectly since he could continue to travel, see new places, experience new cultures and even more importantly his wife could accompany him. He sailed all over Europe, the Nordic countries, the Mediterranean, and all told, Paul visited more than ninety countries and all seven continents.
He has sailed all over the arctic circle from the Norway fjords, to Iceland, from Greenland to the Svalbard Archipelago with its polar bears and amazing colonies of sea birds. But most incredibly, on much smaller ships he has been the ship’s doctor on at least eight expeditions to Antarctica. His eyes twinkle as he recounts the time he had to help rescue and take care of a passenger who had fallen into a crevasse. “It was amazing” he said. “Another passenger had heard strange sounds coming from a hole in the ground. It sounded like somebody was calling for help! But for hearing that small sound we might never have found that person.”
“What would you say is the most dangerous part of the expedition.”
“People not paying strict attention to the guidelines and directives of the leaders. People simply wanting to wander off and do their own thing.”
Throughout his own travels he has met many interesting people like the man Alan Nichols who bicycled the whole length of the Silk Road, storm chasers, deep-sea submersible pilots and even members of the crew from the Kon Tiki Expedition.
Closer to home Paul is a director of the Northern California Chapter of the Explorer Club, founded in 1904 and boasts such esteemed members as Sir Edmund Hilary of Mt Everest fame, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Jane Goodall. The Club’s members include leaders in polar exploration, diving, aerospace exploration, archaeology, zoology, physics, oceanography, astronomy, ecology, geology, paleontology, conservation mountaineering, and speleology.
As a member and Doctor, Paul has taught survival techniques by taking potential expedition groups of up to twenty people to the top of Mount Diablo for simulated exercises. It could include how to manage and bring down a team member who has had a bad fall and broken a leg where there is no cell phone connectivity, and with no special or first aid materials on hand. He advises on what ‘kit’ to take on an expedition and how to be safe.
Some people lead amazing lives, and they live right next to us. Now retired from medical work, but always ready to travel, Paul lives with his wife Anna in Walnut Creek. A most unusual physician.