By Meg Grant
Updated April 24, 1995 12:00 PM

TALL AND FINE-BONED, HER GRAY HAIR NEATLY BOBBED, her blue-and-white cotton dress freshly starched, the elderly American passes a group of crudely saddled donkeys tethered to a post and opens the screened front door of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. “Bonjour,” she says, nodding to a 14-year-old girl with an infected leg who has braved an 8-hour trip to the hospital on a bamboo stretcher. Then, as the woman moves through a sea of patients in varying stages of tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and malnutrition—the characteristic scourges of a country long plagued by poverty—even the sickest turn to catch a glimpse of her. Gwendolyn Mellon, 83, widow of an heir to one of America’s greatest fortunes, has arrived at work.

Gwen Mellon’s duties these days are light—she mostly signs checks and corresponds at her “office” under an almond tree in the hospital’s courtyard—but without her, Hôpital Albert Schweitzer might never have survived. The extraordinary durability of HAS has never been more apparent than in the past year, when Haiti endured the latest grim episode in its sad, squalid history. As a U.S. embargo, designed to force a group of Haitian generals from power, cut off fuel supplies, many of the island’s hospitals had to cut back or just shut down. HAS did neither. Its 13 doctors and several dozen nurses, a small percentage of them American, went right on performing surgery, treating infections and malnutrition and delivering babies, as they have been doing since the hospital opened nearly 40 years ago.

But then, nothing about HAS has ever been ordinary. William Larimer Mellon Jr. and his wife, Gwen, founded HAS because of a fervent desire to deliver health care in a destitute country. Locating their hospital (named for the man who inspired them) in the remote village of Deschapelles, 80 miles from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the Mellons could hardly have chosen a more needy community. Says HAS administrator Tim Dutton, on a three-year tour of duty from Shelby, Ohio: “You see more pathology in a month here than you’d see in a year in the U.S.”

Back in the mid-1940s, Gwen Mellon would hardly have imagined living in Haiti. After she and Larry Mellon married, both for the second time, they lived in Arizona as ranchers with her three children—his only child, a son, lived with his mother in California. But Larry, a scion of the Mellon banking and oil family, grew dissatisfied with his affluent lifestyle and, determined to give his life more meaning, enrolled in medical school at age 37. “He loved the ranch,” says Gwen, “but it wasn’t enough.” Mellon, after being inspired by a magazine article about Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in the African nation of Gabon, also wanted to establish a charitable hospital. He and Gwen, a trained medical technician, chose Haiti, where he had done research as a medical student, as the site. In 1956, using $2 million from Larry’s inheritance for construction funds and between $500,000 and $1 million from his trust fund for annual operating costs, the Mellons opened HAS, a 116-bed facility. Within 20 years it had earned a reputation as the best hospital in Haiti, nearly eradicating measles and tetanus in the 610-square-mile area it serves and raising life expectancy significantly.

In August 1989, after Larry died of cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Gwen stepped forward. She took over her husband’s administrative duties, seeing to it, as he had, that a large percentage of HAS employees were Haitians. “My husband’s belief was that we were guests in a foreign country—that we were here to help the people build something of their own,” says Mellon. Today, 90 percent of the hospital’s staff—augmented by expatriate doctors on one-or two-year tours—are Haitians.

Like her husband, Mellon has worked to improve not just the health of the community but also its environment. She has overseen such projects as reforestation, dam construction, veterinary clinics, well building, even the repair of a bridge to the local voodoo priest’s home. “The whole point is to find ways to help the people live better,” says Mellon.

Most important, Mellon continued to immerse herself in the life of Deschapelles, making Haitian friends and taking up the local ways. She has earned the respect—even reverence—of the people, in part because she views herself not as a savior but as a neighbor. At times she brings children who are patients to her home—spacious but without either phone or television—where they can swim in her backyard pool. But at the end of the day she sends them home to their own families. “I’m smart enough not to get attached,” she says. “I couldn’t be a good mother to them.” At the local market, she drives a hard bargain for eggplant and watercress.

In her spare time, Mellon listens to books on tape—her vision is impaired—hits the dance floor at the only restaurant in Deschapelles and goes to bed a little after 8, to rise again at 5. She occasionally travels to the U.S. to visit her daughter and her two sons—and 12 grandchildren. But her favorite activity, she says, is sitting and talking with the recipients of “Mrs. Mellon’s social security program,” a group of elderly men and women without families to care for them, who earn a little money for combing the seeds from the cotton used in hospital gift-shop items.

The hospital has had to stand firm to maintain its independence from outside interference. In 1986, for example, as the regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was crumbling, Gwen Mellon, then working at the hospital’s front desk, was confronted by an angry, machete-wielding mob that had stormed the hospital gates, demanding that a Haitian employee be handed over to them. Gwen, who with her husband has remained studiously apolitical, met them head-on and, in forceful Creole, said, “You can’t have him. He’s ours.” At first the rabble-rousers resisted, telling her it was none of her affair. But when she held her ground they backed off.

In his final days, Larry called Gwen to his bedside and asked her to take his place as head of HAS. “I think I would have died if I hadn’t had that responsibility right away,” she says, “because we were so close, and we worked so well together.” Larry Mellon died on Aug. 3, 1989, and was buried in a cardboard coffin, like the ones the hospital uses for unclaimed bodies in the hospital morgue. “Dr. Mellon was distressed to see Haitians spend so much on their funerals. He wanted to set an example,” Gwen explains. Gwen’s cardboard coffin, bought at the same time as Larry’s for $5, waits in the hospital storeroom.

In the weeks after Larry’s death, the future of the hospital hung in the balance as locals questioned how things could continue without the founder at the helm. “The Haitians weren’t sure Mrs. Mellon would stay,” says Jan Flanagan, who helps Gwen at the hospital. “That she did has meant a tremendous amount to them.” In fact she went back to work just two weeks after her husband’s funeral. She felt it was important to everyone at HAS to see that his spirit would carry on. “We all feel his absence,” she says, “but he is very much alive here in many ways.”

Gwen Mellon’s greatest challenge came during last year’s government crisis. When fuel for the hospital’s generators seemed about to run out, she called a staff meeting and announced that health facilities around the world operate without electricity and HAS could too. When the U.S. government urged Americans to leave Haiti for their own safety, she stayed. “She had to face things Larry never did,” says her daughter Jenifer Grant, 58, an elementary school teacher living in Essex, Conn. “She gives people courage, because she’s steady.” Even in the face of a threatened U.S. invasion—and the potential for reprisals against Americans—she remained fearless. “I had no idea what was going to happen, but this is my home,” she says, standing in the entry of the elegant but simple house she and her husband built in 1956, just steps from the hospital.

She looks now to the future with hope. “I think this is the most wonderful era in Haiti,” she says. “There’s peace, and such possibility.” Haiti’s reinstated, elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has vowed to improve health care in his country, and his ministers have forwarded a proposal to HAS, asking it to manage two other hospitals in its district. Mellon already finds the growth of HAS daunting, but, she says, “We probably will do this, because it would be a pilot project for the rest of Haiti.”

Patients who can afford it pay $2.30 a night for a hospital stay, including medicines and X-rays, 50 cents for an outpatient visit and between $10 and $30 for surgery. They provide 12 percent of HAS’s $2.25 million annual budget. The balance has been supplied by gifts from family and friends, but the annual donation from Larry Mellon’s trust ended with his death, so fund-raising is now an important part of Gwen’s duties. Lately she arrives at the hospital daily at 7:30 a.m. and stays until noon, spending much of her time writing thank-you notes to donors.

Although she has no plan to retire soon, she is making plans for the future. While many family members, none of whom permanently reside in Haiti, are involved in HAS—all of Gwen’s children and the widow of Larry’s son are on the hospital’s governing committee—no one has emerged as heir apparent. “I would never ask something like that of my children,” says Gwen. “They have their own lives. It’s enough that there’s family interest. That means a lot in Haiti.”

Instead, she and other key HAS administrators are searching outside the family for someone to fill a new position as executive director. “It will have to-be someone who walks on water,” laughs Gwen. Says her grandson Jeff Grant, 33, who is working at HAS while contemplating entering medical school: “The hospital has the spirit imbued now. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Back at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, Mellon conducts her own version of “rounds,” something she does every Sunday morning, when visitors are few. She remains stoic as tiny burn patients howl during dressing changes. She points at mothers, asleep on the floor under their children’s iron hospital beds, and tells how HAS refused a donation of modern, motorized beds because they were too low to the ground to accommodate family members determined to stay with their loved ones. Then she leans over an elderly man who has just undergone successful surgery. He tells her he is so grateful to the hospital he wants to be buried next to Dr. Mellon when he dies. Gwen Mellon takes his hand and responds quietly. “That’s kind,” she says, “but I’m very sorry. That spot is for me.”