Barbara Lefkow, 81

Physical Therapist Barbara Lefkow, 81, Dies

Barbara Lefkow had been a physical therapist.
Barbara Lefkow had been a physical therapist. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

Barbara Lefkow, 81, a physical therapist in recent years for the Visiting Nurse Association in Southeast Washington but whose earlier work took her from the Kenyan outback to a hospital for crippled children in Hong Kong, died March 21 at her home in Bethesda. She had cancer.

Mrs. Lefkow accompanied her husband Leonard Lefkow on his journalism and Foreign Service assignments until settling permanently in the Washington area in 1990. She did part-time work for about 15 years at the Visiting Nurse Association, which provides home health care for low-income elderly and disabled patients.

Initially a therapist in Reno, Nev., she went overseas with her husband in 1956 for his early career with the Associated Press. In Hong Kong, she helped start a children's hospital that treated mostly polio-crippled youngsters.

On the day they were to return to the United States, she came to the airport with a crippled Chinese girl using a pair of homemade crutches and said she was staying behind until she could arrange for the child's treatment.

As her husband recounted in a Saturday Evening Post report, he asked her why she didn't tell him of her plans.

"Because you would have said no," she said.

Starting in the mid-1960s, after her husband joined the State Department, Mrs. Lefkow avoided the poolside-and-tennis social life she might have had as a diplomat's wife.

In India, she was a volunteer physical therapist for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. One private-duty assignment for a Nepalese princess ended quickly when the royal was unable to return to her pre-pregnancy figure three days after giving birth.

Later, in Kenya, Mrs. Lefkow assisted Italian medical worker Annalena Tonelli in providing aid to nomadic tribes in the arid and politically volatile northeast. Mrs. Lefkow helped Tonelli smuggle out of the country a list of known victims after a government-sponsored attack on tribesmen in 1984 at what became known as the Wagalla massacre. Mrs. Lefkow was not at the scene of the killings, but the letter she carried helped document the slaughter and bring it to international attention.

It took many more years for Kenyan authorities to publicly acknowledge the Wagalla deaths, which the government placed at 57, although relatives and survivors said thousands were killed. Tonelli, who was celebrated by human rights groups for her efforts but was declared persona non grata in Kenya, was gunned down by an unknown assailant in 2003 while working in a breakaway republic in Somalia.

Mrs. Lefkow was born Barbara Vine in Rochester, Minn., where she confounded her parents with activities such as riding her bike around town at midnight. At 18, she and a girlfriend used a small rubber raft to head down the Mississippi River. They got 160 miles before mosquitoes ended their trek over water. Instead, she hitchhiked alone and worked in New Orleans for about six months before returning to Rochester.

She was a 1954 physical therapy graduate of the University of Colorado. She received a master's degree in education and human development from George Washington University in 1983. An early marriage to Michael Leahy ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 54 years, Leonard Lefkow of Bethesda; three children from her second marriage, David C. "Chris" Lefkow of Bethesda, Laurel China Lefkow of London and Leslie India Lefkow of Bethesda and Amsterdam; a brother; and five grandchildren.

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