The Legacy of Dr. Paul Farmer

OPINION: The infectious disease specialist—a fierce champion of health equity whose work spanned from Haiti to Rwanda—was an example that one person can make a difference, but also a reminder that it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Dr. Paul Farmer at the new Butaro Hospital built by Partners In Health for the Rwanda Ministry of Health. He is a co-founder of Partners In Health. Location: Burera, Rwanda. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

The world of medicine is reeling after the sudden passing of one of its giants. 

Dr. Paul Farmer—the global medicine pioneer, author, Harvard Medical School professor, anthropologist and co-founder of the nonprofit health organization Partners in Health—unexpectedly passed away in his sleep Monday while in Rwanda teaching at the very school he founded. He was 62 years old.

A fierce champion of health equity, and quite frankly, one of a few notable doctors to actualize this truth, Dr. Farmer’s sudden passing is nothing short of gut-wrenching, sending shockwaves throughout the world of medicine. 

In a world that idolizes athletic accomplishments and celebrity trends far too often, Farmer’s accomplishments seem appropriately worthy of recognition. The infectious disease specialist’s work spanned from Haiti to Rwanda, where he set up hospitals, schools and clinics. His charitable organizations, most notably Partners in Health, brought vaccines, antibiotics, and antiviral medications to some of the most resource-deprived parts of the world. Farmer is what some people in Black culture might call “about that life.” He said what he meant, and he meant what he said, backing his words with actions.

But Farmer was not perfect. While he provided care to millions of impoverished people around the world, he contemplated tirelessly on his own shortfalls and how he could make things better—so much so that he chronicled his insights in several books such as Fevers, Feud, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History and Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. These notes have been read tirelessly by aspiring global public health advocates like myself, spurring reflection on the best way to enact our own forms of revolution and encouraging us to be better clinicians and human beings.

Farmer is an example that one person can make a difference, but also a reminder that it shouldn’t have to be that way. While society aims to cultivate changemakers, our aspirations mustn’t be singular in nature. The goal is not to exalt the Paul Farmers of the world or to convince people that they alone can and should make change, but to foster Farmer’s idealism, passion, empathy, and tireless work ethic in our young people. 

Dr. Paul Farmer attends “Bending The Arc” New York Screening at the Whitby Hotel on October 5, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images)

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder is a riveting account of how politics, wealth, social systems, and disease interact with and at times, undermine one another. It was one of the first health-related books I read that piqued my interest in clinical medicine and public health. It introduced me to Farmer’s work in a setting that was all too familiar to me as a Haitian-American. The book, named after the famous Haitian Kreyol proverb, “dèyè mòn, gen mòn!,” describes how as you solve one problem, another problem often presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one too — mountains beyond mountains. 

Peeling back the layers of medical conservatism and uncovering the racism, sexism, and countless other isms at the root of this rewarding, yet frustrating field allowed me to enter the profession absent of naivety, aware of its potential but privy to the hard work, realism, pragmatism, and attention to detail required to make the smallest dent in this arena. I knew what I was signing up for, ready to tackle the many mountains before me, without the glamor, expectations, and illusions that cloud the path ahead.

Farmer’s legacy is far greater than the people he helped or his efforts to change a global system that was never built to help poor people if you can believe it. A thin, white man empowered and improved the health of Black and brown people, often in environments that were leery of what he represented, but was not asked for—a white savior. 

Farmer’s altruism and authenticity transcended race, inspiring a new generation of healthcare providers who now emphasize culturally competent care, but let’s hope his most lasting legacy is far greater than that. Let today be the day that all health professionals—young and old, Black and white, but especially those who can see themselves in Dr. Paul Farmer—reassess the reluctance to make the drastic changes needed to achieve health equity, the personal mountains that stand in the way and choose to change how you practice medicine for the better.

Dr. Shamard Charles is the executive director of graduate studies in public health at St. Francis College and sits on the Medical Advisory Board of Verywell Health (Dot Dash-Meredith). He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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