Farmer to open global health week

Paul Farmer. Submitted photo.

Rebecca McKinsey | Staff Writer

A man who has tirelessly sought to tackle a global health care crisis by helping one person at a time will speak at Chautauqua today.

is one of the founders of Partners In Health, an international organization that provides medical care and advocates for social justice for underprivileged patients across the world. He will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the

Partners In Health was originally based in Haiti and has more recently expanded to Russia and several countries in Africa and Central and South America. As Farmer traveled to Chautauqua directly from Rwanda, he could not be reached
for comment.

“(Farmer) was chosen to lead off the season because he is such a wonderful example of providing global aid,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education. “He’ll bring an inspirational opening for the season and the week, and he’ll bring a practical story of applying his medical knowledge to the problems of Haiti and Rwanda.”

Farmer’s international medical work was highlighted in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World, by Tracy Kidder.

Kidder said he met Farmer by chance when he was in Haiti reporting on the American soldiers stationed there.

The soldiers’ task was to reinstate the democratic government after a three-year military junta regime, one that ruled with what Kidder described as “great cruelty.”

However, the soldiers’ efforts could do little to change the lives of the everyday, poverty-stricken Haitians. Although Kidder said the American soldiers seemed resigned to the fact that there was only so much they could do, the American doctor he met in Haiti offered another viewpoint.

In Farmer, Kidder found someone who came from a Harvard Medical School background and eschewed the possibility of a cushy Boston job to tackle the injustices he saw facing the international poor.

“But (Farmer’s) way would be hard to share, because it implied such an extreme definition of a term like ‘doing one’s best,’” Kidder wrote.

In fact, the selflessness Kidder saw in Farmer was so disquieting that he did not consider writing about the doctor until six years after they had met, when he decided to go to Haiti for a first-hand look at Farmer’s work.

A profile published in The New Yorker was the initial result of the time Kidder spent shadowing Farmer; however, Mountains Beyond Mountains soon followed.

“It was exhilarating,” Kidder said in an interview. “I wouldn’t have turned away from it once I’d gotten to Haiti and was there with him.”

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb saying that beyond every mountain — or roadblock, or challenge — lies another that’s waiting to be solved.
Farmer’s efforts in Haiti and, later on, in many other countries, were executed in an attempt to take on what Kidder described as the biggest problem in the world.

“It never occurred to me that public health and medicine were such a powerful lens on the world, because we’ve all been ill; we all know illness personally,” Kidder said. “It seems more striking to me than the image you might have of the terrible housing or even homelessness. Somehow the specter of people suffering grotesque injuries — it was overwhelmingly powerful.”

Although much of Farmer’s time is spent providing medical care internationally, he also works as a professor and health care professional in Boston. Mountains Beyond Mountains describes the process that governed Farmer’s paychecks: After his bills and his mother’s mortgage were paid, the rest of the money went directly to Partners Iin Health.

“I guess one of the main questions I wanted to try to answer — and knowing I’d never be able to answer it fully — was, why would someone be willing to make these sacrifices?” Kidder said.

However, Mountains Beyond Mountains doesn’t chronicle the story of someone who feels inconvenienced.

In his book, Kidder describes Farmer as a man who is respected by his colleagues; a man who will sit on the edge of a HIV patient’s hospital bed for an hour chatting about life, drugs and honesty; a man who would return to Haiti time and time again despite being repeatedly barred by government officials.

Farmer, Kidder described, is a man who lives his life by a simple philosophy.

“(Farmer’s) patients tend to get better. They all get comforted,” Kidder wrote. “Doctoring is the ultimate source of his power, I think. His basic message is simple: This person is sick, and I am a doctor.”

Partners In Health was founded in 1987, and since then, its mission, outreach and influence have grown. In addition to providing medical care, the organization provides basic medical education to people who have never received it.

In a simple statement relayed in Mountains Beyond Mountains, Farmer summarized the motivation behind his actions: “Clean water and health care and school and food and tin roofs and cement floors, all of these things should constitute a set of basics that people must have as birthrights.”