The Uplifting and Life-Giving Life of Dr. Paul Farmer

There’s More Good in the World Than Bad

High in the Haitian mountains, the bus in which Paul and Ophelia were traveling came to a sudden stop. Just up ahead, a truck had turned over and there were several people along the side of the road, who had been thrown from the back of the truck. This included a dead woman surrounded by the mangos she had been selling.  It was easy to see the cause of her death was the accident.

Paul, an American anthropology student, and his companion Ophelia, hopped off the bus.  Looking  around, they noted the terrible condition of the truck which had  broken shocks and tread-less tires, the horrible condition of the road and the fact there were people jammed into the back of the truck before it rolled over. They came to another conclusion: the cause of death was POVERTY.  Had the truck and the road been in better repair, the accident would not have happened, and the mango lady would still be alive.

Dr. Paul Farmer

Paul was Paul Farmer, who eventually became Paul Farmer M.D., Ph.D. and public health physician extraordinaire. His companion was Ophelia Dahl, the daughter of famed writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and actress Pat O’Neil.

The vision of the dead mango lady, combined with compassion for the poor and anger at the inferior health care given to the poor, were major factors in motivating Paul and Ophelia to do something about dealing with poverty and providing proper health care for the poor.

Together with Dr. Jim Yong Kim (later to become the head of The World Bank), Thomas White (who provided an initial $1million to start P.I.H. and Todd McCormick (a friend) they started Partners in Health.

P.I.H. treats the poor, but also focuses on the social causes of illness. It has grown to an organization employing 18,000 is this correct #? and providing health care in many countries including Haiti, Russia, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Liberia and to the Navajo in the U.S.A.

The P.I.H. approach has also influenced hundreds of governments and health care providers around the world.

Sadly, Paul Farmer died February 21st at the age of 62 in Rwanda.

He is one of my heroes.  He was an exceptional person in many ways ….

Few would have thought the cause of the mango lady’s death was poverty, and few would have done anything about it.

Few would have grown up as a young person living in a converted school bus in a trailer park, or from time to time on a small boat. He learned to sleep anywhere.

Few would have combined anthropology and medicine. Few would have spent more time practicing medicine in Haiti, (while in medical school at Harvard), than attending classes and still standing near the top of his class.

Few would have been as committed to his patients, often working around the clock on their behalf in-person. Seeing pain and suffering was very hard for him.

Few would have spent their life working for the poor, and when not working in person, advocating for their benefit with amazing results.

Few would have challenged the way health care for the poor was being delivered.  He was the driving force behind creating revolutionary methods of treating tuberculosis., HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

In fact, his method of treating HIV/AIDS was adopted by W.H.O. in 30 countries. He was instrumental in the establishment of The Global Fund that supplied ARVs (antiretrovirals) to people in Africa. He also helped set up health care systems, including the one in Rwanda.

Few would have attracted the support of The Gates Foundation, The Clinton and MacArthur Foundations the way he did, developing working partnerships with local health authorities.

Few would save the lives of so many people and be loved by so many of his patients. He became the godfather to 100 people.

Few would have several books written about them, including Pulitzer Prize-winning, “Mountains Beyond Mountain: Dr. Paul Farmer – The Man Who Would Cure the World,” by Tracy Kidder.  I first read the book about 15 years ago and have read it several times since. 

Few would be the subject of a documentary on his life and P.I.H., “Bending the Arc” (on Netflix). He was the author of 12 books.

Few could have brought people like Dr. Fauci, his former mentor, to tears in an interview while reminiscing about Paul.  To Dr. Fauci, they were soul brothers.  

He was a doer and in spite of what he saw every day, had the view cynicism will get you nowhere.

Few could keep a family together with all of his commitments.

While I only knew of Paul, I send condolences to his family: his wife Didi (also a public health care practitioner), two sons and a daughter.

His death is bad news, but the thousands of lives he saved and helped and the inspiration he gave many is Good News.

Thank you, Paul,

Till next time,

Chris Snyder

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