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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:54 AM

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Botswana trip turns fatal for disease expert from Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

He loved the sunrises and the exotic landscapes of Africa. But most of all, Dr. Richard Root, nationally known infectious-disease expert and former chief of medicine at Harborview Medical Center, loved being at the bedside of sick patients in Botswana.

"For him, it was harkening back to the older days of teaching at the bedside, making very personal connections with the patients," said his son, David Root, a Seattle architect, who spoke to his father Friday. "He was in his element there, really enjoying what he was doing."

Excited about seeing native animals and birds, Dr. Root and his wife, Rita O'Boyle, were on a wildlife river tour in eastern Botswana Sunday, March 19, when he was killed by a crocodile, which pulled him from a canoe as his wife watched from the next boat.

"All of a sudden, the canoe shook. Dick was pulled over [the side] and didn't come up again. It was very bad," said O'Boyle, who was about 20 yards behind her husband.

Dr. Root, 68, also was a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Washington.

He loved his work, his son said, but for nearly two years devoted himself to caring for his previous wife, Marilyn, who died in 2001 of a progressive neuromuscular disease.

Overwhelmed after her death, Dr. Root struggled for some time with the loss and with his own depression, his son said.

Then he met O'Boyle, a widow, and they married in 2004. "He had a second lease on life," his son said. "He re-entered the practice of medicine with this incredible amount of renewed energy."

Last summer, Dr. Root and O'Boyle accepted an invitation to spend two months in Botswana with a University of Pennsylvania program bringing doctors and medical students to a hospital in Gaborone, the nation's capital, and outlying clinics.

The program in Botswana, which has the world's highest incidence of HIV, originally was funded, in part, by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 1971, Dr. Root founded and headed the University of Pennsylvania's infectious-disease division.

The day before the attack, O'Boyle said, her husband returned from a nearby clinic, where mothers and their children waited in long lines outside. "He was so happy — he was just doing exactly what he wanted to do. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, 'Rita, that's why I'm here.' "

Dr. Harvey Friedman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Botswana program, visited with Dr. Root in Botswana a week ago.

Dr. Root loved being in Botswana, he said: "It's a return to the earlier years of medicine, where being good with your stethoscope and good at your history taking are really important skills."

According to Friedman, game experts said there had never been a crocodile attack on the Limpopo River in that area, in the Tuli Block game preserve in eastern Botswana. Instead, guides there worry about hippopotamus attacks, David Root said.

When he talked to his father on Friday, Root recalled, "I said, 'Dad, take care and watch out for needle sticks.' He laughed and said, 'I love you, Dave.' I said, 'I love you, Dad.' "

Dr. Root, who received his medical degree in 1963 from Johns Hopkins University, came to the University of Washington as chief resident in 1968. He taught at Yale University's medical school and was voted "teacher of the year" in 1982.

Dr. Root returned to Seattle in 1991 as chief of the medical service at Harborview and vice chairman of the department of medicine at UW. Most recently, he helped teach residents and medical students at Providence Medical Center, said Dr. William Bremner, chairman of the UW's department of medicine.

Bremner said Dr. Root was recognized internationally for his work in the field of leukocyte biology and community-acquired pneumonia, and he was admired throughout the national- and international-medicine and infectious-disease communities for his teaching and clinical skills.

In addition to his wife and son David, Dr. Root is survived by his sons Richard, a teacher in Los Angeles, and Daniel, a Seattle physician, and by O'Boyle's two daughters, Becky Fotheringham and Anna Potvin of Seattle.

Services are being planned.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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