Paul Farmer

I met Paul Farmer yesterday. Shook his hand and talked to him and everything. Admittedly, I was at a brunch with about 300 other people, but it was still a pretty intimate setting. He was on his way from Chicago to Haiti, and stopped in to keynote the brunch. His talk was impressive, and I could stand to learn a lot about inspirational speaking from him. He opened with jokes and socializing, including a story about a student he had met recently who approached him and started with “you’re not as old or grumpy as I thought you would be.” Farmer thought “interesting opening gambit,” and asked “why would you think that?” The answer was “because I’ve read your books.”

Farmer claims to be a pretty happy, cheerful guy … but admits that his books are some angry material. I guess you can’t be a physician to poverty for 20+ years without getting a bit tired of the never-ending-ness of it all. Maybe I should ask thx4asking and redmed about that.

Without much warning, in the middle of an otherwise chipper story, he said “so here’s another interesting opening gambit, particularly for a breakfast meeting,” and asked for the first slide. It was a picture of a man, nearly wasted away. I caught myself thinking “gee, he hasn’t had a separated shoulder,” since you could clearly see both collar bones, all the ribs, and the pelvis through his taught skin. Farmer finished up his social niceties and let the picture linger on the screen for perhaps 10 minutes as he talked, eventually explaining that this was a man who had come back to die in his home village in the central plateau of Haiti. That the man’s father had seen his son and had started (as they do, in those parts of the world) building a coffin for his son … right in the front yard. He mentioned that the woman in the picture was the man’s mother. “The mothers are always the last to admit that their children are going to die.” Farmer explained that his organization had been planning to have the money to start a clinic in that town – but that the money had been delayed, and he had been in the village, in part, to manage the delay.

He came back to the US that week and got a bank loan to finance construction of the clinic. The clinic saved the man’s life. His next slide was a picture of the man, robust and healthy … and the next several slides traced his story from “going home to die” through becoming an international lecturer on social justice. “This is right around the corner,” he said. “I’m going there after I leave here.” I can attest to this. Haiti is not a long and complex 36 hour voyage away. It’s a quick hop on a flight out of Miami.

I’ll throw this out there: Anyone want to come along, next time we go? I’m thinking of being a bit more independent this time, which might well include needing some extra hands.

He talked briefly about Haiti, about Rwanda, about Serbia. About how, seeing these things again and again, you eventually have to stop pretending surprise when the effects follow the causes … when genocide follows massive power imbalance between cultures.

He closed with hope: One of the earlier speakers had been a medical resident who expressed frustration that with all his medical knowledge, the hard part seemed to be finding a way for his patients to get to their clinic appointments in Boston. They can’t afford cab fare. The social network that is supposed to provide for such things – in many cases – simply doesn’t. Medical care may be free, but cab fare is not – and neither is the bus.

“Not to paraphrase our president elect, but we can do this. The people in this room could solve that particular problem for this city. We could do it today.”

My cold, calloused heart was seen to grow three whole sizes.

So – not to get all mushy – but let’s do this thing. We can’t sit around and expect the Paul Farmers and the Obamas of the world to do our dirty work for us. That’s no more reasonable than the old Buddhist joke “Please Buddha, make me enlightened – and call me when you’re done with that! I’ve got lots of other wishes too!” Let’s use our precious human lives to do something a bit better than merely to survive. We can all live a bit more simply – and give a bit more to people who have nothing.

Also: If you would like a copy of Pathologies of Power, drop me an email with your shipping address. It’s on me.

1 comment to Paul Farmer

  • Garrett Wilkinson

    Hi Chris,

    My name is Garrett Wilkinson and I’m an pre-medical undergraduate student at Kansas State University. Stumbled across this page while looking for a Paul Farmer article. I loved the story. And of course, I’d never pass up an opportunity for a copy of a Paul Farmer book. I haven’t yet read Pathologies of Power, but would love to. I live at 1100 Fremont Street, Manhattan, KS, 66502.

    I realize this message is seven years late, but I figured it was worth a shot.


    Garrett Wilkinson

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