RIP Paul Farmer
Why is it the Giants among us always fall first? Kobe Bryant. Anthony Bourdain. Robin Williams. Bob Saget. Kate Spade. John Lewis. John McCain. And now, add to the list Dr. Paul Farmer.
Dr. Paul was a medical anthropologist, a physician, prolific author, one-of-a-kind teacher, an influencer, a co-founder of the very consequential organization — Partners in Health — and a worldwide inspiration, dreamer, doer and visionary.
It’s challenging to put into words what his life and his life’s work has meant to me and my life’s work. As an impressionable college undergraduate, I read Mountains Beyond Mountains in one of my first community health classes that I took. I had theretofore had no understanding of what the field of Public Health was, nor how public health approaches would forever shape my thinking, actions, behaviors and strategies in my public- and private- sector jobs.
It was no accident that I chose my graduate degree and first career path in large part due to Paul Farmer’s legacy. In fact, it was Dr. Farmer’s life, the fervor of what he believed and why he believed it, and his big bold heart that set me on my own life course.
The following are my top three takeaways from his life well-lived, his ideologies and the example he set:
1.Start from where people are. A lot of my personal and professional life today requires that I use the power of persuasion to get others to do things that are either in their best interest (i.e. my daughters to brush their teeth nightly) or in our collective best interest (i.e. helping Nike achieve our 2030 Sustainability goals). In a prior life, I worked with developing country government leaders to develop, refine, implement policies and programs that would benefit the health of their populations. I think about this core Paul Farmer lesson every time I’m in these situations. Always meet people where they’re at, and start from where they are. This quote from MBM exemplifies Dr. Farmer’s approach, and I always hold his method as the gold standard. It’s applicable in every realm of life, across any industry and time. “A doctor who knew nothing about local beliefs might end up at war with Voodoo priests, but a doctor-anthropologist who understood those beliefs could find ways to make Voodoo houngans his allies.” At no time more than the present are we in a place where we need to deeply challenge convention — climate, politics, equity, and the list goes on. We can be successful in challenging long-held conventions in these realms, if we start from where people are, and yet simultaneously dream about the future that can be.
2. Build equity into everything you do. Dr. Paul had equity at the center of any health program/policy he ever implemented or promulgated. The cynics and naysayers told him that it wasn’t possible or wise to get the poorest and most vulnerable access to HIV medicines or medicines for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis distributed in challenging Health systems (in Haiti, Peru, Russia). He called Bullshit. If we can do it for some (i.e. those in the Global North), we surely could muster the political will (and financing) to deliver the same level and quality of care to all, regardless of the your birth lottery. And in successfully delivering care to millions of the poorest and most disadvantaged, in some of the most harrowing health systems in the world, he not only proved that it could be done, but that it was exceptionally worthwhile and in doing so — he raised the expectations bar for all of us. One Paul Farmer quote that will always guide how I choose to live my life: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong in the world.” And from Tracy Kidder, the author of MBM: “Of all the world’s errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the ‘erasing’ of people, the ‘hiding away’ of suffering.’”
3. Consider the Context. Dr. Farmer believed that: “Giving people medicine for TB and not giving them food is like washing your hands and drying them in dirt.” We must always consider the socio-cultural and socio-political forces at play when designing any ambitious solution — be it health program/interventions, or a portfolio of moonshot investments to drastically impact our carbon footprint. Things do not exist in isolation. And often, only in peeling back the layers of the onion and addressing systemic root causes, are we able to implement truly sustainable solutions that stand the test of time.
Why doesn’t the world take the mere mortals among us first? Maybe it’s because the Gamechangers are blazing the trail for the rest of us, in death, as in life. I cannot be sure. One thing is for certain though, and that is that Dr. Paul’s life and death call for all of us to dream bigger, challenge convention, and do more. Right now. Today! While we still can. Thank you Dr. Paul Farmer, and may you Rest in Peace.