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March 2022 – Hero of the Month: Dr. Paul Farmer

I have previously highlighted the courage and commitment of several doctors because those who help heal the sick are worthy ofspecial gratitude.

I first learned of Paul Farmer’s dedication and unbelievable energy when reading a biography about him by one of my favorite authors, Tracy Kidder: “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (Random House, 2003). The book’s title was appropriately borrowed from a Haitian proverb: “Beyond mountains there are mountains…” which meant as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself and so you go on and try to solve that one too. No single sentence could better summarize Paul’s remarkable life.

Dr. Paul Farmer died last month in Rwanda of an acute cardiac event at the age of 62. He had truly exhausted himself for four decades seeking to help bring quality medical care to poor countries. During his storied career, he was admiringly described by those who knew him best as a man of “endless energy” and “one of the truly great people of our time.” I agree with one reviewer of Tracy’s book who said: “it left me uncomfortable and guilty (the world is full of miserable places and one way of living comfortably is not to think about them…), but it also inspired me, kept me up all night and moved me to tears.” He is my hero ofthe month.

Farmer was brought up with five siblings in a converted school bus and on a houseboat in Alabama and Florida and their family was under constant financial stress. Eventually, he received a scholarship to Duke University and graduated with honors in 1982 with a degree in medical anthropology. While at Duke, Paul began volunteering to work in Haiti in villages on the Central Plateau to help bring modern health care practices to their communities. By the time of his death forty years later, he was operating 16 medical facilities with 7,000 employees in Haiti which was then and still is one of the poorest countries in the world, helping to greatly reduce HIV, polio, tuberculosis and many other diseases, as well an infant mortality rates.

But I got ahead of the story. From Duke, Farmer went to Harvard Medical School where he received multiple degrees and board certification in infectious diseases and internal medicine. After graduation, he formed “Partners in Health” which not only provides the aforementioned assistance in Haiti, but expanded to South America and Africa, where he died. In Africa, his organization was heavily involved in Lesotho, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Madagascar and Malawi. When he died, he was in Rwanda teaching at the Butaro campus of the University of Global Health Equity, which had accepted its first class of medical students in 2019.

In America, he worked to provide health care to the underserved Navajo nation and farm workers and was enlisted during the early phase of COVID-19 to help develop a contact-tracing protocol.

In 2009, he was named Chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine. He also was appointed a special envoy and advisor to the United Nations on multiple health initiatives, received a $45 million grant from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation which led to the successful development of drug-therapy initiatives that succeeded in having some of the highest cure rates in the world for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB).

As I write this tribute, I am overwhelmed by a sense of futility in doing justice to this man’s life. His list of accomplishments, his tireless effort to relieve suffering in so many countries where he overcame what would have seemed to a normal person as insurmountable odds. If you are interested in learning more about Paul Farmer, I would recommend starting with the basic overview in Wikipedia and then pick up a copy of Tracy Kidder’s book.

At news of his death, I was reminded of a comment from one of his admirers: Paul Farmer’s ambitions were almost otherworldly, it is with great sadness that there are too few of him in this world. He has provided all of us with a roadmap to decency and such an endowment is beyond measure.”

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