Lombeida Foundation continues mission after dr.'s death

  • Published
  • By Andrea Brown
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Even after rising to the rank of colonel and Academy chief neurologist, Dr. Judith Lombeida never lost her inner child. She jumped into tag games with the neighbor kids. She was full of mischievous pranks. She preserved the spark of her childhood as well as the love of her native Ecuador, where she regularly took part in medical missions.

That is, until four years ago, when she was killed in a freak car crash on a family trip. Her husband, retired Lt. Col. Mark Backlin, now continues her work.

Her missions became his mission. He founded the Judith Lombeida Medical Foundation to carry on her legacy.

"On the first mission we saw 2,500 people in five days," said Mr. Backlin, a lead management analyst for the Academy's Department of Manpower and Personnel. "We had a closing ceremony at the end with the Ecuadorian air force and their wing commander. We had the Honor Guard there and 200 cadets. The governor of the province was there, the chief of logistics and the general who put it together. Our U.S. embassy had three representatives. My daughter sang the national anthem a cappella. Judith's family was there. It was just over-the-top, phenomenal."

That was three years and five medical team missions ago. The seventh mission is set for September. Missions draw teams incorporating the Academy, civilians, Rotarians, the Peace Corps and the Ecuadorian military.

"It's amazing, the dedicated doctors that do this kind of work," Mr. Backlin said. "I just provide the avenue."

Dr. Lombeida's death was a tragic end to what was supposed to be a celebration. The couple and their two kids, David and Laura, were driving to Minnesota for Mr. Backlin's dad's 80th birthday party. They were in Nebraska on Interstate 80 when an unsecured armoire fell off a trailer, landing in the path of the suburban driven by Mr. Backlin.

He swerved to avoid it. The car rolled six times. Dr. Lombeida was ejected from the back seat and died at the scene. Laura, 19, broke her neck and back. David, 17, broke his arm.

"They told me I had a 20-percent chance to live," Mr. Backlin said.

The couple met in 1983 in San Antonio, where he was stationed and she was finishing her residency. A friend kept nagging him: "You've got to meet this girl." Mr. Backlin finally agreed to a movie date to get the friend off his back. And he was glad he did.

"She paid," he said. "I fell in love."

They tied the knot in 1985. She later joined the Air Force.

"Three months after she came in, she was selected as a major. I was still a captain. From then on, I never did catch up with her," he said.

In 1992, she was the first woman awarded the Star of the Armed Forces Award by the Ecuadorian military.

The missions in her honor continue making positive changes in the lives of Ecuadorians. Mr. Backlin recalls visiting the remote home of a 30-year-old Ecuadorian who'd never been to school because of his cleft palate.

"I asked him, 'Why didn't you have this done a long time ago?' He said, 'Because we didn't have a TV or a radio. We didn't know.' So we put him in the pickup and drove him three-and-a-half hours to the surgical room. The next day we did the surgery on him."
As a result, the man went to school. "He was so excited. He wanted to be a cook," Mr. Backlin said.

Those seemingly little things make a difference.

"I use this analogy all the time," Mr. Backlin said. "There's a boy on the beach and there are a million starfish that washed up. So he's throwing them back in, one at a time. And this guy comes up and says, 'Kid, what are you doing? There are a million of these things. What does it matter?' The kid picks one up and throws it in and says, 'It matters to that one.'"

Mr. Backlin knows it would matter to the woman passionate about patients and playing tag.

"I'm not trying to save the whole world," he said. "I just want to help those in the memory of someone I really cared about."

A golf tournament at the Academy's Eisenhower Golf Course July 19 will help fund future teams' missions to Ecuador. For more information on the tournament, contact Mr. Backlin at 333-9679.