In memoriam for the doctor who walked with the poor.
Paul Farmer died this week and deserves a public eulogy in many spaces. He was a hero in global healthcare and we need to hold up our heroes.
This week his passing may be overwhelmed by the news cycles.
I did not know him and his flaws. I knew other people regarded as public heroes and knew their secrets and their public/private divide. It didn’t matter. We all have those flaws, and it’s hard to live with saints.
One reviewer of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s wonderful book (2003) about Farmer, stated that he never understood what drove Farmer. In our jaded age, it is as if those driven by service to others and a sense of injustice could not be real. Dr. Farmer grew up in a large working-class family and understood struggle.
Dr. Farmer was only 62 when he died in his sleep of a cardiac event in Rwanda. It seems impossible that Dr. Farmer’s heart could not expand to account for any trauma, as it had so many times. But he worked in the physical world and lived in the physical world, not just the metaphorical one.
I spent my career in health and human services, and know that many go into fields of service with a sense of calling. We can get caught up in the recognition of good deeds, or whatever else feeds our normal human desires, but the desire to leave the world a better place is a present motive.
A counselor in a women’s rehab center I managed, herself a recovering addict, ducked her head into my office and said “I love this job.” Like many struggling non-profits, the salary we paid her was not going to make her rich in dollars, but she was rich in the gratitude of her clients. And to say “her clients” diminishes the attention she paid them as a professional friend who walked their path.
We are formed by our historical and generational context. We also must hold reality in one hand and idealism in the other. We must hang onto inspiration, especially during these never-ending challenging times.
When I made the career move of working in human services to working in healthcare, I was surprised how many patients overlapped from my previous work in human services. This overlap of individuals occurred in a large metropolitan city, not in a small community where one expects to see the same people. This experience reinforced for me that hospital beds are filled by many of the poor. Poverty and struggle have clear health manifestations, and that is true in the United States as well as other countries.
Paul Farmer did not write off Haiti and places whose dysfunctions overwhelm others. Paul co-founded Partners in Health, which in name states his philosophy of accompanying, not providing the role of the expert nor the missionary role of the servant-master.
He also taught at Harvard. He was married and had three children.