Sherry Farrington Green ’60 was strolling along a beach in Thailand in December 2004 when she turned to chat with someone over her shoulder. That’s when she saw the tsunami.
“It’s not a wave. It’s a wall of water. You don’t even hear it. We started to run and I said, ‘We have to get up a tree,’ ” recalled Green, who was “hanging on like a monkey” about 25 feet in the air when that wall of water hit the shore. “I never thought I could shinny up a tree, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to.”
The tsunami claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people and injured another 125,000. Green was supposed to fly home the next day, but despite her close call – the water surged up to her chest while she clung to that tree – she was in no hurry to leave town.
Instead, she packed her suitcase and made for the nearest hospital, where she volunteered for four days.
“It was the most amazing and powerful experience of my life,” said Green, who’d always wanted to be a physician. Discouraged by high school counselors who told her girls couldn’t be doctors, Green majored in French at Mary Washington. She lived in the French House during her senior year, where she admits that she and roommate Suzie Hawkins ’61 spent more time laughing than speaking Français.
Green earned a master’s degree in education and another in teaching special education before getting a doctorate in education from Columbia. She primarily taught blind students in public schools and at Lighthouse International in New York, where she and husband Alan raised four children. The entire family was enjoying a camping trip in the Virgin Islands at Christmastime in 1989 when Alan died suddenly of a heart ailment.
“That changed the trajectory of my life,” Green said.
She taught for a few more years, then was accepted into two yearlong art programs through Sotheby’s in New York and Christie’s in London. She spent the next two years studying American and European art, then stayed an extra six months in Europe to help Christie’s set up a similar program in Paris.
Back in the United States, Green visited her brother in Portland, Ore., and decided to make the town her home. She worked for the Oregon Historical Society for a few years before pursuing her love of medicine at Seattle Midwifery School. She became a doula, offering free support to women before and during childbirth.
“It’s just an amazing, humbling, exhausting, beautiful thing to do,” said Green, who has traveled to Africa three times to volunteer her skills. She delivered a baby in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, last year, she said, “because I was the only one around.”
On her 60th birthday, Green climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Recently, at age 75, she helped the women’s saber team earn a gold medal at the World Veterans Fencing Championships in Bulgaria. A few items remain on her bucket list: She’d like to become so fluent in French that she dreams in the language. And, though she holds a pilot’s license, she’d like to take off and land – as a passenger, she specified – on an aircraft carrier. Her husband’s early death taught the grandmother of nine not to wait to pursue her dreams.
Green said, “The saddest words in the English language are, ‘If only…’”