Two decades ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to travel with Dr. Paul Farmer for part of my book about him. We traveled to Haiti, Peru Cuba, Russia, Mexico, and Cuba. He was a great companion, funny, and talkative. He also took care of me when I fell ill after a night in Cuba with too many rums.
He would buy gifts for people he was visiting at the next stop in airports. He’d buy present after present until he could barely manage to carry themAll. His itineraries weren’t on any of the usual sightseeing lists. In Russia, for instance, he didn’t see the Bolshoi Ballet but rather went to advise beleaguered doctors at a prison where inmates were dying of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
Paul’s basic belief was that allAll human beings have the right to equal care and respect, especially when they are sick. He once told me that his dream was to create a movement that would reject and work to correct the terrible health inequalities between and within countries. When I first met him — in Haiti, in 1994 — he had already created a growing health care system in a desperately impoverished area. I thought he’d done a lot already. Now I see that he was just getting off to a good start.
In 1987, he founded Partners in Health with a few friends. The membership now includes thousands of young people, many of whom Paul taught or mentored, as well as legions of friends and colleagues from the countries where Partners In Health operates. Paul was the inspiration behind many of these efforts: medical education, hospital-building in Haiti and Rwanda; campaigns to eradicate diseases such as multidrug resistant tuberculosis (AIDS) and Ebola; providing treatment and chemotherapy in places where most injuries and illnesses have been neglected.
I vividly remember a time when Paul was visiting a hospital to meet with Peruvian doctors about a different patient. He had just reunited with a boy who had been suffering from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. It had caused severe fractures in his long bones. Paul was visiting a hospital to meet with Peruvian doctors about a different patient when he ran into the boy’s mother and father and saw the boy comeRunning toward him down a hospital hallway, actually running . The boy wasn’t just healed, he was restored. Paul was filled with joy and hugs as he met the Peruvian physicians and then headed out to his car. I felt that someone was following us. I turned, and so did Paul, and we saw the little boy’s mother approaching with her head bowed. She came up to Paul and said in Spanish, “I want to say many thanks.”
Paul immediately took her hands and said, also in Spanish, “For me, it is a privilege.”
Paul was not a perfect person, just like you and I. He didn’t always treat everyone as well as he might have, but to be a patient of his was a great privilege. He was a skilled doctor and a deeply caring doctor. We all wish we could have him as our doctor. I believe his greatest strength and perseverance was due to his love of medicine. He wanted to make everyone his patient, and he got a good start.
Paul described what he did as “accompaniment,” working alongside others as a member of a large cooperative enterprise. He and his Rwandan colleagues had created and managed a large medical project in rural areas that had never seen one. The team built a beautiful, full-service facility that now serves as a cancer treatment center for the entire nation and is also home to The University of Global Health Equity. Paul was there to celebrate and teach the white coat ceremony for its first cohort. He was buried on the campus on Monday.
I’m told that he had been up late the night before, seeing patients, which in my experience was for him the equivalent of a night on the town. The next morning, feeling tired, he lay down for a nap and didn’t wake up.
Many people feel deep grief at his passing. I find it difficult to speak for myself.