We've Lost a Giant
Dr. Paul Farmer led by personal example and total commitment. Here are 3 secrets that made him incredibly inspiring – and effective.
Dr. Paul Farmer, a giant in global health, passed away on Feb. 21 of an acute cardiac event at age 62.
In his all-too-brief life, this passionate health activist accomplished more than many others could probably have done in several lifetimes. In the process, he won legions of admirers, including me.
Anyone familiar with the field, knows the outlines of Paul’s work. A physician and medical anthropologist, he spent his life in some of the most challenging places on earth, among the poorest people with the greatest need for medical care.
He co-founded Partners in Health, which now works with governments in 12 different nations to bring quality health care to those least likely to get it.
He also managed to create medical universities in Haiti and Rwanda, even before they had modern hospitals. He said if we establish the universities first, the hospitals will follow – a total reversal of the typical order in which things are ordinarily done.
I had the good fortune to become slightly acquainted with Paul when I worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and WHO. We cooperated with his Partners in Health; he advised us and many other global institutions on critical policies and provided his voice to discussion panels at a number of our conferences.
I believe the secret of Paul’s success can be distilled into three unusual strategies.
First, immersion. Paul understood that medical science and technology often become (unintentionally) an intellectual and human barrier between physicians and patients. He and his colleagues realized that if you ever hope to truly understand a population’s culture, needs, and values, then you had to live as part of their community and to experience their everyday lives alongside them. This was the indispensable preliminary step before you could really have an impact with successful community-based treatment programs.
Second, uncompromising egalitarianism. We might also call it idealism, born of profound compassion. According to Paul, the root of everything wrong with our world today is the widespread belief (rarely spoken, but daily acted upon) that “some lives are worth more than others.” Motivated in part by his religious faith, Paul believed utterly that every human being is of equal value, no matter how rich or poor, and no matter where they live – and therefore, we all deserve equally good medical care.
Third, personal commitment. Paul led by example, putting his own life on the line in the sense that he “invested himself” in the cause. From Haiti to Rwanda, and across Latin America and other parts of Africa, his approach wasn’t “helicopter healthcare.” He lived and worked among his patients for years at a time.
This “all-in” level of self-investment gave his leadership a powerful psychological weight…a moral gravity…and ultimately, an irresistible magnetic pull. People could not help but be inspired by his example. As a result, they acted to support him, to join his projects, or to help put his plans into practice.
TIME magazine said Paul largely “succeeded in bringing gold standard health care to the poorest people in the poorest nations.” I think these three strategies go a long way toward explaining his singular impact.
It seems fitting to end this tribute with Paul’s own words. He once expressed his personal creed this way: “In a world riven by inequity, medicine could be viewed as social justice work.”
Paul will be missed. But I strongly suspect that his example and teachings will continue to inspire people and provide hope for change for lifetimes to come.
GLOBE is an outlet that allows colleagues and friends of the ApiJect Global Initiative to share their thoughts on matters related to global health and their ongoing work. Send questions or responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.