A Life Well Spent

Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Farmer? I hope so. He was an amazing humanitarian who took medical care to the world’s poorest in places like Rwanda and Haiti. I say “was” because Dr. Farmer died suddenly while in Rwanda on February 21. He was only sixty-two years old.

Paul Farmer came from a simple childhood, living for a time in a converted bus in Florida with his family of eight. His father was, as Farmer called him, “a free spirit”, taking odd jobs to support his family and teach them the value of living simply, introducing him to Haitian migrant workers. Perhaps that simple life set his future in motion. He became friends with Haitian farm workers, learned their stories, learned to speak Creole, and while a student (1983) worked in Haitian villages to help bring modern health practices to them.

Farmer was critical of the U.S. response to the Covid pandemic, pointing to Canada and the United States hoarding vaccines, not sharing technology, and not sharing access to the science. He said we could have gotten out of this pandemic by now if we had simply shared, had given everyone access to the fruits of science. “We have shown the rest of the world how badly we can do,” he said of the U.S.’s response. He published a book in 2020 Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, in which he wrote of ebola sweeping through nations not because of viral biology but because of “the history of inequality”. He wrote that colonialism created commerce to move commodities like slaves and gold and diamonds, “but what European colonialism didn’t bring to the region was health care”.

He was a humble man, not looking for acclaim for his efforts to provide medical care for the poorest. He was driven to serve those most in need. He walked for hours to visit his patients in these poor countries, to provide them with treatment. In his work with HIV in 1999-2000 he got as good results in Haiti as they did in Boston, despite being told by the medical profession that you “can’t treat HIV in poor communities”. He proved them wrong.

Bill Gates wrote in the Atlantic on the day of Farmer’s death, that Farmer had “dedicated his life to equity in health care and advocated for the people left behind by health systems.” “There will never be another Paul Farmer,” wrote Tracy Kidder in her 2003 book about Dr. Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, calling him “the man who would cure the world”.

Farmer left a legacy of medical treatment, having formed organizations that allowed doctors and other medical practitioners to follow in his footsteps, training them to recognize the importance of equality, that we should be doing more for the poor in terms of health care. He co-founded (1987) a not-for-profit Partners In Health (PIH), a “global health and social justice organization that responds to the moral imperative to provide high-quality health care to those who need it most.” He chaired the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He was dedicated to his vision, to his expectations for health care in poor communities. He taught his students to do as he did, to “walk in the shoes of the patients he served”.

We see the effects of medical disparity in this country. I hope we will speak widely of Dr. Paul Farmer’s vision. I wonder how much media attention was dedicated to the work of Dr. Farmer over the years of his medical service as compared to the hours and hours of media time consumed with the antics of the buffoon who occupied the oval office for four years. Perhaps if we had discussed Dr. Farmer’s initiative and vision, we might have been more prepared to react with wisdom to Covid rather than panic. If only we could put our focus on those initiatives in the world that are working rather than what isn’t. PIH’s and Dr. Farmer’s mission statement was – “We refuse to accept that any life is worth less than another.”