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Help Haiti by helping Dr. Paul Farmer's Partners in Health

Last week was an awful one for our community.

It started with a well-known osteopathic doctor shooting his wife and then himself, leaving their two children as orphans.

Later in the week, a former roofer was accused of killing his sister and another woman near Brooksville, then a Dixie County sheriff's captain.

A deep freeze devastated coastal fish populations and agricultural livelihoods.

Dwarfing even these events was the earthquake in Haiti that killed an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people.

Is it a stretch to include that catastrophe as something that happened to us, to our county nearly 1,000 miles away and in the hemisphere's richest nation rather than its poorest?

When we're talking about levels of suffering, of course there's no comparison. But what about our responsibility to help — to take on their problems as ours?

The model here is Partners in Health, a health care organization cofounded by former Brooksville resident Paul Farmer. When PIH decides which patients to treat, political boundaries and distance are irrelevant. The only thing that counts is need. Translated to us, that means we should feel just as much for an orphaned child in Port-au-Prince as one in Spring Hill.

With the destruction of so much of Haiti's already inadequate medical infrastructure, "Partners in Health probably just became the largest health care provider still standing in all Haiti," author Tracy Kidder wrote last week in the New York Times.

PIH's nine hospitals, staffed with more than 100 doctors and 500 nurses, are all miles from the quake's epicenter and escaped major damage. The organization is working to set up emergency operations in Port-au-Prince, but in the meantime has established a triage center at its headquarters in Cange to deal with a stream of earthquake victims — patients with broken bones, deep cuts and even limbs severed by falling debris, said PIH spokeswoman Meredith Eves.

What does it need from us?

Money, of course, and urgently, to replace its rapidly diminishing stores of medicines and other supplies. An informal local group of Farmer's old friends, Partners for Paul, is working to collect donations. If you want to contact them, call Tricia Bechtelheimer at (352) 796-3519 or contribute to PIH directly by visiting its Web site:

Kidder, in his column, also wrote that PIH might be the best model for rebuilding Haiti. The nonprofit group cooperates with organizations such as the United Nations — naturally enough because Farmer also serves as the U.N.'s deputy special envoy to the country — and with the Haitian government, strengthening it rather than circumventing it, as some other aid organizations do.

Kidder wrote an acclaimed book about Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and now serves on the PIH development committee. He's biased, in other words, but then again, so am I — and so, probably, are most of us.

It's natural to care a little less about far-away tragedies. Only a few exceptional characters can treat all suffering as universal. If we need a connection to Haiti — something to make Cange with its hospital full of earthquake victims feel like Brooksville's sister city — we have Farmer.

If we write PIH a check because we know, admire and trust him, well, that's fine, too.

Help Haiti by helping Dr. Paul Farmer's Partners in Health 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 1:02pm]
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