Davida Coady’65: Around the World and Home Again

This doctor has made a career of moving outside her comfort zone
By Peter Wortsman
Photo Peter Wortsman

Davida Coady’65 keeps a pin stuck to her bathroom mirror with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do something every day that scares you.” It is not the idle creed of a daredevil, but a challenge to break out of her comfort zone in fulfillment of her credo: “I believe in trying to make the world a better place and in relieving suffering.”

For five decades and counting, the pediatrician turned international health activist turned substance-abuse specialist has traveled around the planet, often at considerable personal risk, aiding populations in dire need. In one instance, an American diplomat whisked her out of harm’s way moments before she was about to be arrested by Nigerian troops who had been tipped off about her work with Biafran children. Another time, a bus driver in Honduras deliberately played dumb, calling her “just a stupid gringa” to save her from the clutches of soldiers who had swept her up in a dragnet on suspicion of caring for refugees from El Salvador. And despite a fear of flying, time and again she boarded flimsy aircraft flown by bush pilots under perilous conditions.

Returning to California in 1994, she recognized drugs and alcohol as key aggravating factors in child neglect and abuse and decided to switch gears from pediatrics to substance abuse to promote recovery among addicts on the street and among the incarcerated in California prisons.

Columbia Medicine spent three days in September 2015 shadowing Dr. Coady, from her home in the Berkeley Hills to halfway houses she helped create in Oakland and to the prison yard at Solano State, a maximum security prison in Vacaville, Calif., where in 2009 she and her husband, Thomas P. Gorham, established a program to train men serving life sentences to be certified substance abuse counselors in the prisons, a program that has turned lives around.


A Breath of Fresh Air in a Suffocating World

The sun beats down with a merciless intensity on the prison yard. It is 105 degrees Fahrenheit out in the open and only slightly less sweltering indoors. To Randy Carter, Darryl Poole, Kenneth Davis, Curtis Abron, James Ward, and many others, Davida Coady, or “Miss Davida,” as they prefer to call her, is a breath of fresh air in a suffocating world, a door that does not lock shut in their faces but opens outwards and inwards, and to which, as she has taught them, they themselves hold the key. All five men are serving life sentences. All are proud alumni of the Class of 2009, the first group of peer mentors Dr. Coady and her husband helped train.

“I’m used to being invisible,” says Mr. Poole, age 46, a recovering addict with a record of arrests, locked up for more than 27 years, who has since devoted his life to “listening to other lost children like myself in the bodies of grown men.”

In the words of Mr. Carter, age 52, incarcerated for 34 years and counting: “She taught us that we have the tools! Use your tools to help yourself and others!”

At age 66, Mr. Ward, who has been behind bars for some 33 years, calls himself the “elder statesman” of that first crop of counselors. “I am simply a raw human being trying to do as best as I can. It takes a special kind of person to work with someone like me, to look me in the eye and tell me there’s still something worth saving, and then go ahead and teach me how.”

Vandrick Towns, now pushing 40, is a graduate of the program who has since been released after 21 years in prison. He now serves as co-coordinator of the Oakland branch of Options Recovery Services, the self-help addiction recovery organization founded by Dr. Coady and Mr. Gorham. Says Mr. Towns: “She’s got that look. She’s the only person, aside from my mother, who can correct my behavior with just a look.” It’s a look, he adds with a chuckle, which he has since learned to turn on others as a quiet reminder to do the right thing.

Raul Higgins, age 56, incarcerated for 17 years and a recent transfer to Solano State, had long heard of Dr. Coady’s work: “Look at the men that have been under her wing. They are the direct transformation of a miracle.”


Early Role Models

“I believe I’m a lucky person,” Dr. Coady reflects in the course of a conversation on the patio of her snug little house in the Berkeley Hills. “Where else in the world can a coal miner’s daughter grow up to go to Columbia University and get to become a doctor?” Her Scottish immigrant father left a perilous existence in underwater pits in the firths off the coast of Scotland to seek a better life in America. She was inspired to pursue the study of medicine after working a summer job at a camp for diabetic children run by two pediatricians, Drs. Mary Olney and Ellen Simpson. Among other early influences was the Rev. Laurance Cross, pastor of Northbrae Community Church and mayor of Berkeley, a man committed to civil rights and social justice, whose sermons first kindled her own desire to make a difference.

Earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., she applied and was admitted to several top medical schools. For her the primary appeal of P&S, in addition to its academic reputation, was a chance to learn about the health problems of the developing world from the revered parasitologist Dr. Harold Brown, who ran a fourth-year tropical medicine elective in Liberia. Dr. Brown remained her “mentor and hero,” with whom she continued to correspond until his death in 1988. She and classmate Keith Brodie’65 honed their pedagogical and clinical skills tutoring nurses in pharmacology and other subjects and assisting with basic medical care at the Firestone Hospital in Harbel, Liberia. The two have remained fast friends. “The arc of her life is truly remarkable,” says Dr. Brodie, a past president of Duke University. “Few people I know have contributed so much to the public good.”

Contemplating various specialties in the course of her P&S studies, including surgery and orthopedics, Dr. Coady ultimately opted for pediatrics and completed her residency at UCLA, where she was named chief resident in her second year. Eager to learn more about the role of nutrition in child health, she pursued, on Dr. Brown’s advice, a certificate in international nutrition at the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama in Guatemala.

Davida Coady’65 and husband Thomas P. Gorham

At the Institute she came into contact with Dr. Thomas Weller, then chair of the Department of Tropical Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, a pediatrician by training and recipient of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work in cultivating poliomyelitis virus in a test tube. Dr. Weller urged Dr. Coady to get a solid grounding in epidemiology at Harvard, where she earned an MPH in 1969. Dr. Weller also got her involved as a research associate in the Harvard TB Project with the Department of Community Medicine at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschappelles, Haiti.

While at Harvard she also came under the influence of nutritionist Dr. Jean Mayer, the individual responsible for, among other major public health initiatives, the introduction of food stamps to supplement the diet of American households that fall below the poverty line.


Saving Biafran Children and Other Emergency Aid Efforts

In 1968 the Igbo Tribe in Eastern Nigeria declared independence and established the short-lived nation of Biafra, an enclave promptly surrounded by Nigerian troops and threatened with starvation. Dr. Mayer and another new acquaintance, American journalist and peace activist Norman Cousins, led emergency aid efforts. From June 1969 to January 1970, Dr. Coady served as field director of Aid to Biafran Children, the organization founded by Cousins. Flying into Biafra, she worked in tandem with the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers, in her view the most effective group involved in the relief effort. She collaborated with Concern for Biafra, an organization that would later evolve into Concern Worldwide, to this day a powerhouse for good in some of the world’s most disadvantaged countries.

At the urging of Dr. Mayer, at the time a member of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health and a special adviser to President Richard Nixon, Dr. Coady reported on the dire situation and the imminent risk of mass starvation in Biafra to then National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger and to Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson, documenting the condition of close to a million children with famine edema. Pushing for immediate emergency airlifts of food, medicine, and other necessities, she ultimately helped avert a human catastrophe.

Once the Biafran crisis subsided, Dr. Coady joined the Peace Corps, first as acting medical director, then as health program specialist, in which capacity she coordinated assistance programs in Africa and Asia. “My only regret in life is that I didn’t stay with the Peace Corps,” she says. But as much as she relished the involvement with cadres of young volunteers and the chance to help direct effective health initiatives, the whirlwind travel schedule got to her. “Waking up every day not knowing what country I was in, I’d start talking about one project and realize I was someplace else.”

Returning to her native California, she accepted a joint appointment in pediatrics and preventive and social medicine at the medical school at UCLA, where she also later taught for many years in the School of Public Health’s epidemiology division. “I have always told my students: Stop asking, ‘What’s going to make me happy?’ and look to the needs of the community!”

While at UCLA, she helped to kick-start the fledgling Venice Family Clinic, a free clinic serving low income families, at which she officiated for many years as the head of the pediatric service. The largest free clinic in the country today, it has 10 sites in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, serving a patient pool of close to 25,000 people.

In her work, she has always sought to balance the pressing immediate needs of medicine and the long-term imperatives of public health. “Our society,” she argues, “puts emphasis on curative medicine, rather than preventive medicine. Public health has always been the stepchild. When you’re a doctor, people say: ‘Oh thank you for curing me or for my surgery.’ But nobody thanks the public health professional for saving them from smallpox or for their clean water. So you have to be very far-sighted to go into public health, because there’s no instant gratification.” At the same time, she points out, “most of the people who have made real public health advances also happen to be MDs. I see myself as both. I always try to do some curative medicine along with the prevention.”


Cesar Chavez, Mother Teresa, and Other Formidable Forces for Good

While at UCLA, Dr. Coady was approached by representatives of the United Farm Workers Union. Union founder and legendary civil rights activist Cesar Chavez sought her help in creating clinics. She still vividly recalls their first meeting. “He was a totally focused, totally committed individual. ‘Okay, Doctor, look,’ he told me, ‘I want you to understand that the health of farmworkers is not going to be markedly improved by your clinics. But your clinics will increase union membership and that will bring us better health conditions, toilets in the fields, better housing, sanitation, and laws to protect us.’ That totally changed my thinking,” she adds. “I realized that curative medicine is a political tool to bring about better health all around.”

Then in 1971, Bangladesh declared independence from West Pakistan, war broke out, and Dr. Coady was off again, taking a temporary leave of absence from teaching to help the Irish Ghost Fathers with the refugee rescue effort. In the field she crossed paths with members of the World Health Organization Smallpox Eradication Program in India. They asked her, once she had completed her mission in Bangladesh, to help in a short-term epidemiological effort that took her through rural India and the slums of Calcutta, hunting down every last case. Her team succeeded in eradicating the disease there. “Whenever I look at photographs of people in India today, I am happy to see no smallpox scars.”

“She’s one of the most inspirational people I know, always risking her life, her medical license, and her career to save and better the lives of others.” – Martin Sheen

It was in the course of that work that she met Mother Teresa, one of the other formative influences in her life. Dr. Coady and her colleagues sought her assistance and that of the 1,500 nuns under her tutelage in helping to locate the last cases of smallpox in impoverished neighborhoods of Calcutta. “Mother Teresa was a master organizer and a master manipulator,” Dr. Coady still recalls with a note of awe in her voice. “She dealt with every person seated around a big round table one at a time. She was totally focused on whoever she was talking to. And as I sat there waiting my turn, I realized that everybody came to her asking for something and went away having promised her something. She agreed to help us and we promised, in turn, to vaccinate all the people in her feeding lines. And when we were done with our work, Mother Teresa said: ‘Oh now, Lady Doctor, can you come work for us? Don’t write!’ she said. ‘Just come!’”

Some years later, following Dr. Coady’s divorce from her first husband, friends recommended that she take a break at Club Med. Her preferred remedy to get herself out of the funk she was in was to return to Mother Teresa, as a Missionaries of Charity volunteer, and help organize the group’s health program, including family planning, in the slums of Calcutta.

Other notable occasional partners in her efforts included the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a staunch supporter of her work with refugees, and a local parish priest, the late Father Bill O’Donnell, affiliated with St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, whose commitment to civil rights and social justice once earned him the moniker “The High Priest of Protest.” Lifelong friends, Dr. Coady and Father Bill marched together in defense of the rights of migrant farmworkers, boycotted Nestlé for promoting its newborn formula over breastfeeding in the Third World, and protested the training of Central American death squads at the School of the Americas (since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Ga., among other causes.

Father Bill was also a collaborator in a number of Dr. Coady’s public health initiatives, notably the Hesperian Foundation, a nonprofit health education publisher devoted to making health guides and other materials available at little or no cost to populations in need, and the San Carlos Foundation, an organization she created and still runs as unpaid president, to “provide health and educational assistance to refugees and other people living in extreme poverty in the developing world.”

Thomas P. Gorham, Davida Coady’65, Susan Champion (chair of Options Recovery Services), and actor Martin Sheen

Another lifelong friend is the actor Martin Sheen. In a telephone interview he fondly recalled a defining moment in their friendship. “Davida was over for dinner one night at our place and another guest who did not know her asked what she did. ‘I’m a doctor, a pediatrician,’ she said. ‘Where do you practice?’ he inquired. ‘Primarily in the Third World,’ she replied. ‘Why’s that?’ he asked. To which she replied: ‘Because I think it’s immoral to make money off other people’s misfortunes, sickness, and suffering.’” Sheen has put his money where his mouth is in support of her work. “She’s one of the most inspirational people I know,” he says, “always risking her life, her medical license, and her career to save and better the lives of others.”


Aiding Refugees in Asia and Central America

Back in the States again, shortly after she completed her work in India, another crisis beckoned. In 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, then under the oppressive rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Tens of thousands of panicked Cambodian refugees fled into neighboring Thailand, where they faced harsh conditions and severe shortages of food and medical supplies. Dr. Coady once again joined forces with Concern, in support of the efforts of the UN to direct the various aid groups. “Somebody needed to direct the training of these volunteers who were pouring in from all over the world, many of whom didn’t know a thing about what they were doing.”

At around the same time, the Nicaraguan Revolution broke out in an effort to topple the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. Having maintained a strong emotional tie to Central America ever since her days as a student in Guatemala, Dr. Coady connected with the exiled Nicaraguan Sandinista rebels living in the Bay Area.

When the Sandinistas overthrew the dictator in 1979, Dr. Coady pitched in to help rebuild the country’s public health infrastructure. Working with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Agriculture, in an effort to address the lack of doctors and other health professionals in rural areas, among other initiatives, she helped distribute Spanish editions of a manual of basic medical advice, “Where There is No Doctor: A Village Healthcare Handbook,” published by the Hesperian Foundation, a book since translated into more than 100 languages.

When Civil War broke out that same year in El Salvador, and refugees went pouring into neighboring Honduras, she once again pitched in, working under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees to help organize the relief effort. “By this time I saw myself and was known as an authority on refugee health care.” She subsequently became involved in refugee aid in the wake of an armed struggle in Guatemala and thereafter in Mexico at the time of the Zapatista-led rebellion of indigenous peoples in the southern state of Chiapas.

Her home in Berkeley became a depot for the relief effort. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medicine went through this house on the way to Central America.”

The following year found her shuttling between Uganda and neighboring Kenya, directing famine relief among the Karamajong minority in northeast Uganda in the wake of the fall of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.


Coming Up for Air and Considering the Needs of Her Own Community

“I thought I’d spend two years helping out and ended up spending the better part of a decade. When I paused to catch my breath, I figured out that I had gone on somewhere between 45 and 50 trips to Central America and elsewhere. I decided it was time to come back home and do something in my own community.”

Working part time several nights a week as a pediatrician in the emergency department of Children’s Hospital of the East Bay in Oakland, she saw countless cases of battered or neglected children of substance abusing and alcoholic parents. Her first husband had had a drinking problem. And reflecting on her itinerant existence leaping about from crisis to crisis, acknowledging that she thrived on crisis, she was forced to face and address her own occasional binge drinking and the sometimes ill-advised personal decisions she made under the influence. After a period of soul-searching she decided to switch specialties from pediatrics to addiction medicine.

“It’s not a subject this society likes to address. When I’d tell people early on that I was no longer a pediatrician, and that I was going into addiction medicine, they’d say: ‘That’s really sad, you were such a good pediatrician!’”

On the advice of a lawyer friend, she began working as a coordinator of the Berkeley Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court, conferring with convicted addicts and offering the option of entering a recovery program as an alternative to doing time in prison.

In 1997 she founded Options Recovery Services to assist substance and alcohol abusers, many homeless and/or in and out of jail, to engage in effective recovery. Housed in an old Veterans Administration building in downtown Berkeley, the program is free and accessible to all. A full-service provider, Options Recovery Services offers counseling, a supervised site for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and practical support such as driving individuals to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get IDs needed to enter a residential treatment program. The organization operates on a strict model of clean and sober. Many current and former clients work for the program in various capacities, fortifying their own efforts at recovery by helping others follow suit.

Dr. Coady joined forces with her second husband, himself in recovery and serving as president of the Addiction Professionals Association for California. Together they built Options Recovery Services into a powerful and productive force in the Bay Area.

Davida Coady’65 with retired correctional counselor Sol Irving, right, and members of the first class of the Offender Mentor Certification Program at Solano State Prison, in Vacaville, Calif., from left, Kenneth Davis, Darryl Poole, James Ward, Kurt Abron, Raul Higgins, Eric Wickliffe, and Randy Carter | Photo Peter Wortsman


Peer Mentoring in Prison

In 2005, prisoners serving life sentences at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County just north of San Francisco initiated a prisoner peer-mentoring substance abuse program. A consultant, Sol Irving, a former correctional officer turned correctional counselor with more than 30 years of experience as a peace officer, decided to set up a similar program at Solano State Prison, where he was employed at the time. Having heard of the effectiveness of Options Recovery Services, Mr. Irving approached Dr. Coady and Mr. Gorham to help design the program with a focus on addressing issues of substance abuse.

The three teamed up in 2009, interviewing and selecting a core group of 50 inmates, many serving life sentences for violent crimes committed under the influence while they were young, to go through the rigorous curriculum of the Offender Mentor Certification Program. Of those first 50, 47 proudly marched in cap and gown at the first graduation ceremony held in the prison gym some six months later, cheered on by their fellow inmates as officially certified drug and alcohol counselors skilled at working with their peers. A life-affirming purpose for those still serving time, it has proved a precious and marketable skill which those later released on parole have applied to building a clean life on the outside.

“I’m their doctor first and foremost, which is why they won’t call me by my first name. I’m a role model. I’m the one that makes them think twice.”

The curriculum is grounded in a parallel process of working on oneself while learning the skills needed to help others. As Mr. Gorham puts it: “Many of these guys made dumb decisions as young men under the influence that cost somebody’s life. We demand that they grow into that adult body and start making adult decisions.”

Mr. Irving says Dr. Coady is “the glue that holds it all together.” His first clue that things were working was when, in an environment in which the demonstration of raw emotion is taboo, he heard that trainees came out of sessions crying. Compelling prisoners to face and confront their own early trauma which in many cases they had kept a deep dark secret, as Mr. Irving puts it, “she broke them down to build them up.” Dr. Coady also teaches the pharmacology component of the curriculum, the physiological effects of alcohol and various controlled substances.

Many prisoners transfer a filial devotion, but Dr. Coady keeps a cool head about her work. “If I’m a mother figure for them, fine, great,” she says. “But I’m their doctor first and foremost, which is why they won’t call me by my first name. I’m a role model. I’m the one that makes them think twice.”