Dr. Linda Farley did not live to see her dream -- the establishment of a universal health care plan that would provide quality care to all Americans -- come to fruition.

But the Verona physician who sought to heal a broken health care system survived long enough to see the first outlines of what she hoped would be a fundamental reform take shape.

Farley died Tuesday morning, on the very day that press reports indicated President Barack Obama would demand that Congress enact sweeping changes in the health care system before the end of the year, changes that reportedly will include a public option that reformers hope will lead to the establishment of a national health care plan like those now operating in most developed nations.

Farley, an ardent champion of a single-payer health care system run by the government as a public good rather than by for-profit insurers, would have loved to have been a part of the coming debate.

And she would have joined it as she did all others -- for peace, for economic and social justice, for civil liberties, for the environment -- with a rare and remarkable combination of urgency, warmth and good humor.

"I know we have a lot of work to do, so many barriers, so many challenges, so many powerful foes," she told me a few weeks ago, at another rally on another night when a woman of 80 who was battling cancer might have been excused for staying home. "But we've got to do it, so what's the point of getting frustrated. After all, we're right."

Farley, almost always in tandem with her husband and fellow physician, Dr. Eugene Farley, redefined health care activism in Madison and Wisconsin over the past several decades. Bringing lifetimes of medical experience and the calm, cheerful demeanors of the family physicians of another era -- when doctors had the time and the wherewithal to get to know, and love, their patients -- the Farleys made the case for fundamental reform in human terms.

At community forums, in church basements and union halls, on the stage before thousands at BobFest, the Farleys created a constituency for single-payer health care, and they changed the politics of the region. After Gene Farley toyed with a congressional run in 1996 on a health-care reform platform, a young state representative named Tammy Baldwin took up the mantle in 1998 and got elected in large part because she championed single-payer.

Baldwin adored the Farleys, and they her. A few years ago, the congresswoman nominated Linda Farley to be honored as part of the National Library of Medicine's "Local Legends" program. Baldwin, who is no slouch in this department, hailed her nominee as Wisconsin's "passionate crusader for health care reform."

But that didn't stop the intrepid Farley from lobbying the congresswoman, as she did every other official. And when the politicians fell a little short, she kindly -- but firmly -- prodded them. And they listened.

They listened because Farley knew of what she spoke.

Inspired as a teenager growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., by novels about doctors who cared for the rural poor in Appalachia, she decided to become a physician.

Farley put herself through college and medical school working as a nurse's aide.

It was tough, but she was smart and determined. And she was cheered on by a fellow student, a young fellow named Gene Farley, who eventually convinced her that he shared her dedication to serving those who most needed but could least afford health care.

Together, they worked at great teaching hospitals and inner-city clinics, on their own rural practice and in neighborhood health centers in big cities. They trained nurses in Jamaica and doctors in Madison. And when she retired, Linda Farley kept on caring for folks for free, making the rounds of local clinics and donating her services.

Farley "credited her two years in the mid-1950s on the northeastern Arizona Navajo Reservation as transforming her attitude and approach to medicine," recalls her biography at the National Library of Medicine. "Fifty miles from the nearest paved road, she and Gene lived in a small trailer and ran an outpatient clinic, providing medical care to the surrounding Navajo community, and also evaluating ambulatory treatment of tuberculosis using a then-new drug."

The experience on the reservation was a powerful one for the Farleys. In fact, several weeks ago, to celebrate her 80th birthday, Farley returned with Gene and her children and grandchildren to Many Farms, Ariz., which is on the reservation. Gene said Linda delighted spending time with patients she had cared for more than 50 years ago.

Another major influence for the couple was their work at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., -- the country's largest private, comprehensive historically black institution for educating health professionals and scientists -- where they established a faculty development program.

At the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Linda Farley served as an assistant professor of Family Medicine, and it was in this role that she received a great deal of regional and national recognition, earning the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Task Force Appreciation Award in 1993, the Wisconsin State Medical Society Physician Citizen of the Year in 1995 and the American Academy of Family Physicians Presidents Award in 2001.

But the awards and honors were never more than cause for an awkward smile from an instinctively modest woman. Her many friends saw that smile once more this spring, when the Democratic Party of Wisconsin -- of which she was a loyal if frequently prodding member -- honored her and her dear friend, former state Rep. Midge Miller, for their decades of leadership and activism. Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Joe Wineke got it right Tuesday when he said that "Linda Farley was a beloved member of the Democratic Party who embodied our commitment to health care reform. Linda devoted her career in medicine and politics to helping the medically underserved and advocating for real health care reform."

While she accepted the honors -- especially if they helped advance the cause of health-care reform -- Farley got excited about caring for people, especially when she was volunteering at the South Madison Health & Family Center-Harambee and other free and low cost clinics. Among other things, she worked as a volunteer consultant for Disability Rights Wisconsin, the state-appointed agency charged with advocating on behalf of disabled citizens.

"She was an incredible resource," said Disability Rights attorney Todd Winstrom. "To have a qualified doctor spend a lot of time going through someone's case, looking at whether they received appropriate medical care, giving us honest, strightforward, reliable medical feedback, it was invaluable, and a lot of people were helped by it."

Farley also acted as a medical consultant on occasion for The Capital Times, reviewing medical records of jail and prison inmates who allegedly received negligent or inadequate care.

Dianne Greenley, another Disability Rights attorney, knew Linda and her husband through their work with the agency as well as through their connection with the local Quaker meeting.

"She was just an extraordiarily passionate person, willing to put herself out to help other people as well as being someone who was very concerned about the larger set of health care issues," Greenley said of Linda Farley.

Farley positively glowed when she was campaigning for single-payer health care. She helped build Physicians for a National Health Program, an activist group that has more than 16,000 physician members. "It's my passion," she would say.

Farley once said that "I'd like to be remembered as a good family doctor who really cared for people."

But she always added that "really caring" required doctors to do more than just give shots and write prescriptions. "We have to be active," she said. "We have to take our experience, our knowledge, and use it to shape a better health care system."

And so she did.

John Nichols - 6/10/2009 6:51 am

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