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Paul Farmer’s Passing and Contributions to Global Health

Today I woke up to the news that Dr. Paul Farmer, MD PhD, has passed. According to Partner’s In Health CEO, Dr. Sheila Davis, Farmer died in his sleep from an “acute cardiac event” while in Rwanda. He was 62 years old.

My first introduction to Paul Farmer was during my college years. A friend lent me Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a biographical book centering Paul Farmer’s life as a radical thinker, doctor, human rights advocate, and medical anthropologist whose international work began in Haiti. Kidder’s title captures one of Haiti’s most prevalent proverbs, mon gen mon, meaning “the mountains have mountains” signaling never-ending obstacles as a fact of life.

As a medical anthropologist student working with Haitians myself, Farmer’s contributions, frustrations, and documented experiences with acute social injustices, are particularly salient. Farmer’s writing and lectures always garner a visceral reaction for me. His tenacity in tackling the mountains as they came was and will remain inspiring. Not only a co-founder of Partner’s In Health, one of the most well-known global health organizations, Farmer gave us the idea that global health is and should be a tool used to disrupt the unequal flow of power that leaves so many suffering in its wake.

Today I’m writing from The Bahamas. I’m here doing pre-dissertation research among Haitian immigrants on New Providence Island. As I try to uncover the maternal health experiences of this community, I’ve learned that so many women die prematurely during pregnancy or shortly after labor leaving behind their little ones, their families. In most cases, the circumstances are what Farmer would call “structural violence,” or social and institutional failure to address social forces (racism, classism, xenophobia, gender and sexual inequality) that preclude people from having their basic needs met (Farmer et al, 2006). While doctors and nurses here at both private and public hospitals are burnt out, overworked, and at capacity, it is clear provider empathy is hard to come by.

For me, Paul Farmer’s most important contribution to our understanding of health equity, begins and ends with empathy. Empathy from providers, government officials, policy makers, and community leaders. Empathy from our neighbors, our co-workers, our families.

I’m in a Caribbean country I don’t fully understand among people whose decisions and perspectives I can’t begin to wrap my brain around. Bahamian xenophobia toward Haitians and Haitian-Bahamians is real. The racism I see in my own cities (Milwaukee, Madison) is real.

So today, I ask: how can we use Paul Farmer’s example and his steadfast commitment to achieving equity and pursuing basic human rights for all, as we overcome the mountains in our own communities? How can we draw from Farmer’s memory for inspiration and motivation to stand up for the injustices we see, experience, and embody?

Above all, will we be brave enough to choose empathy?


*Image courtesy of John Ra of Partners In Health.

Farmer PE, Nizeye B, Stulac S, Keshavjee S. Structural violence and clinical medicine. PLoS Med. 2006;3(10):e449. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030449

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