Remembering Paul Farmer, a man worth knowing, at a time when one is needed

by | Feb 27, 2022 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Most columnists this weekend are writing about one man, an evil, power-hungry leader who is dragging the world to the brink of war.

I am not.

I am choosing instead to write about another man, who’s about as far from Vladimir Putin as one can get. His name was Paul Farmer. I say “was” because he died last week at the too-young age of 62. And in the fog of Putin’s sudden attacks, Farmer’s story has been shrouded.

It shouldn’t be. Paul Farmer was a remarkable person. Like Putin, he affected millions. But unlike Putin, he saved them. And unlike Putin, borders, countries and nationalism meant nothing to him. He went where there was need and anguish. He brought hope. He brought light.

For the last few years, I had been hoping to meet Paul Farmer. I had wanted to do this ever since I’d read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Tracy Kidder’s inspiring account of Farmer’s early medical work in Haiti. When I began to work in Haiti myself, with an orphanage, I started asking about Farmer. Did he still visit there? How often? Where was he working?

In time, I met people who knew him. I asked for an introduction. Then a friend in Washington tried to connect us. A friend in Boston did the same. We missed each other a few times, but I always figured our paths would soon cross.

And then he died, last Monday, in his sleep, in Africa.

So this column will be as close as we come.

Trying to heal the world

Farmer was first raised in Alabama and a Florida town called Weeki Wachee. By all accounts, his parents were free spirits and the family began to travel a great deal, living out of a bus and a houseboat for a while, even going to foreign countries and working alongside poor people, which may be where Farmer developed his pathos for the less fortunate.

He went to college at Duke, started travelling to Haiti as a student, and continued doing so through medical school at Harvard. By the end, he was basically flying back home to take his exams and spending the rest of his time delivering care to rural Haitians.

In 1987, when he was just 28 years old, he and a few colleagues from Harvard formed Partners in Health (“Zanmi Lasante” in Creole) out in a desolate, impoverished plateau of Haiti. There was nothing there when they started.

But in time, PIH would flourish. In additional to medical services, it now provides housing, schools, clean water and sanitation. PIH has grown to 16 sites in Haiti, employing 7,000 people, and has stretched around the world to include Africa, Russia, Peru and Mexico.

But despite the millions his work would affect, what dazzled me most about Farmer were the endless accounts of his kindness and compassion.

In Kidder’s book, he details an early incident where Farmer was volunteering at a Haitian hospital in Leogane when a pregnant woman was brought in with a severe case of malaria. She needed a blood transfusion. There was no blood on hand, so a doctor asked her sister to get to Port Au Prince, give blood, and bring it back. The sister had no money for the long ride. So Farmer ran around the hospital trying to get a dollar here or there, until he gathered $15 and gave it to her. She raced out, only to return later in tears, saying she didn’t have enough for the car ride and the transfusion, so they wouldn’t help her.

Meanwhile the pregnant woman had gone into respiratory distress. The nurses were arguing over what to do. Farmer was insisting they needed blood. The sister was weeping. “This is terrible,” she said, “you can’t even get a blood transfusion if you’re poor.”

The pregnant woman, and her unborn baby, died shortly thereafter. The sister, in her disbelief, said the words “Tout moun se moun.”

We’re all human beings.

That became Paul Farmer’s battle cry.

A life well lived … for others

I say this honestly. I do not want to be like too many other people. But I wanted to be like Paul Farmer. The remembrances that came forth last week from people who knew him are the kind of stories I’d hope to leave behind — tales of him stopping to get presents for patients he was about to see or recalling children whose lives he had saved and seeing them years later, speaking to them in their native tongue, rejoicing in their health.

He could be brash and pushy, but only for issues that helped others. He thought big and was constantly urging those around him to do the same, make larger hospitals, expand the plans, he would find the money somehow.

He hated cynicism. He called it “a dead end.” He believed in something called liberation theology, which emphasizes the segment of Christianity that focuses on helping the poor.

He spoke. He wrote. He taught. Tirelessly. He believed in improving the education of the poor people he was helping, so they could one day man the clinics and programs he had founded. He pushed for funding and with it, he created programs that eliminated tuberculosis in countless poor communities. He treated AIDS patients. Cancer patients. His ego was only for saving more, doing more, never for his own headlines.

“He wanted to make the whole world his patient,” Kidder wrote.

I had so many questions I’d wanted to ask him. My dream was to have him come visit the orphanage I operate, meet our children, inspire them. I figured there was time.

But life has its own schedule. According to Kidder, Farmer had gone to a facility he’d created in Rwanda, again from nowhere, which now serves as a cancer center for the whole country as well as a teaching campus. He’d stayed up late visiting with patients. The next morning, feeling tired, Farmer lay down for a nap.

He never woke up.

The cause of death was believed to be his heart, which always seemed too big for this world. 

Farmer once said, “Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor.” I wish more doctors felt that way.

He also once said, “it is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations.”

On this weekend of horrible reality, let us not be solely focused on humanity’s worst example provided by Putin. Let us instead remember that for every one of him, there is a man like Paul Farmer, who sees the world not as a place to take but as a place to save. A man you’d want to meet. I wish I’d had the chance.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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