Marjorie Seybold’s taste for travel has taken her around the globe to places like Vietnam, Brazil and Afghanistan to help combat disease and illness that have plagued those regions. The 72-year-old neurologist’s most recent journey, however, brought her to the Bi Feng Xia Panda Center in China, home to the largest giant panda reserve.
For about a week, Seybold and other volunteers who participated in UC San Diego Extension’s Building Bridges to China program, helped with animal conservation efforts by working with the endangered giant pandas, including assisting in general care for the animals.
Pandas are in grave danger from habitat encroachment due to clear cutting of the surrounding forests. “There has also been a human population increase and a need for more land for agriculture,” said Seybold, who, along with her 15-year-old grandson, stayed in a hostel during their time in China. “It’s a real problem for the Chinese to re-introduce pandas into the wild. They are doing quite well in terms of reproduction. Pandas often give birth to twins, but they typically abandon the weaker twin in the wild. The panda camp is also working on having both babies survive.”
It was Seybold’s first time volunteering abroad in a non medical setting, and she said it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of her life. The La Jolla resident’s globetrotting experiences began back in 1968, when she spent two months in Da Nang, a major port city on the south central coast of Vietnam, as a volunteer physician two years out of medical school. She treated a number of Vietnamese patients with infectious diseases and illness she had never seen before, such as the plague and typhoid fever.
“I was the only physician but I had Navy and Vietnamese nurses who were a big help,” she said. “It was a great learning experience and a confidence builder. Up until then I always had a senior physician available to get me out of trouble. I found I could stand on my own two feet.”
Seybold didn’t have much in the way of medicine to treat her patients – only about six-to-seven different drugs that had been donated.
“We had some patients who had congestive heart failure from rheumatic fever and many with infectious diseases I found you could do a pretty good job with the few medicines we had. That was heartening and really gratifying,” she said.
As part of her volunteer efforts in Vietnam, Seybold received an around-the-world ticket in which she used to travel to places like Thailand, Nepal and India for six weeks before returning to the United States.
“I had some really wonderful experiences. People were very kind to a young woman traveling alone. People who were in the area would even adopt you for a period of time,” she said. “I met some really nice people.”
Seybold’s travels didn’t stop there. She went back to Vietnam a couple of more times as a physician and to work with local neurologists. She also worked as a physician in Brazil, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Solid clinical training, she realized, is really what a physician needs to help patients.
“I felt I was very lucky to have trained when we didn’t have all our present devices because I was in situations where we didn’t have a CAT scan or an MRI or as many lab tests as are available today,” she said. “When you go and teach in a place like Afghanistan you realize you can practice really good medicine if you’re well trained. Devices are wonderful, but it’s so important that the physicians not be totally dependent on them.”
Seybold, who grew up in Southern New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, began her passion for medicine back in high school as a lab assistant in a local hospital. By the time she was a senior in high school she was a technicians’ assistant. Seybold continued her passion for medicine by graduating from Temple University’s School of Medicine, followed by graduate training in neurology and neuro-ophthalmology at the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. In 1973, she moved to San Diego, joining the UC San Diego School of Medicine faculty. She worked as a neurologist at UC San Diego and the Veterans Administration Hospital for 23 years and seven years at Scripps Clinic. Seybold is also a UC San Diego alum as a 1991 graduate of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.
Seybold has indeed seen many changes and advancements in medicine over the years.
“When I began in medicine we had no treatments for most neurological diseases” she said. “There was a huge emphasis on the history and on a physical exam for diagnosis. If you didn’t come up with a diagnosis after the history and exam, you were not likely to get one. It was a lot of fun and challenging to work under those circumstances.”
Today, Seybold stays challenged and in shape by playing basketball at least six times a week, mainly at the Mission Valley YMCA. She’s even a recipient of a Senior Olympics gold medal in basketball.
“We now have more than 100 women in the league,” said Seybold, who has also played field hockey and soccer. “It forms a really wonderful social group as well as a good opportunity for competition and exercise.”
Seybold’s volunteerism continues via the Tijuana Rotary Scholars, which teaches English-as-a-Second-Language and computers to teenagers in Tijuana. The program, cofounded by her late husband, Dr. John Vaughan, is run jointly by the La Jolla Rotary Club and Club Rotario de Tijuana in Tijuana.
“The purpose of the program is to encourage bright kids from poor areas to stay in school,’ said Seybold, who also hosts foreign students coming to UC San Diego. “The dropout rate in Tijuana is very high and keeping them in school through high school gives them an opportunity to succeed in life.”