While writing his 2020 book Fever, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, Paul Farmer interviewed an impoverished Ebola survivor who lived in a zinc shack in Sierra Leone.
Farmer made several more trips to the African country after writing the book, visiting the woman each time. He also brought food and clothing for her and her children.
“That’s how much he cared,” said Bailor Barrie, Farmer’s longtime mentee and executive director of Partners in Health’s Sierra Leone site.
Partners in Health, the global health organization Farmer co-founded, eventually helped the woman relocate to a safer and more comfortable home.
Farmer, the internationally-renowned doctor, humanitarian, anthropologist, author and professor, died Feb. 21 in Rwanda due to an acute cardiac arrest while he was sleeping. He was 62.
He dedicated his life to the notion that every human, regardless of race, wealth or geography, deserves high-quality health care, Barrie said. After graduating from Duke University in 1982, Farmer traveled to Haiti as a volunteer while he began attending medical school and pursuing a postgraduate degree in medical anthropology at Harvard University.
He lived for years in Haiti, where he built his first medical clinic, only returning to Harvard for exams and laboratory work, according to Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, a 2003 biography by Tracy Kidder.
The doctor was known for making house calls in some of the poorest corners of the world, at times traveling miles to see a single patient.
Partners in Health, which Farmer co-founded with fellow Haiti volunteer Ophelia Dahl and former Duke classmate Todd McCormack, has expanded from a one-room clinic in the 1980s to offering patient services in 12 countries and a medical school in Haiti.
The organization played a critical role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, training contact tracers in the Navajo Nation and helping communities implement their vaccine rollout plans. Partners in Health also worked with the Lesotho government to build an oxygen plant for COVID-19 patients in the African country, according to the nonprofit.
“He really stands out as one of the most influential global health figures of our time, and I don’t think that’s a hyperbole,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, told The Washington Post.
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In an interview with The New York Times, Fauci broke down in tears and said that he and Farmer had been like “soul brothers.”
“He called me his mentor,” he said, “but in reality he was more of a mentor to me.”
Born in Massachusetts, Farmer was raised near Brooksville by a schoolteacher and grocery store cashier. Poverty led the family, which included six children, to at one point live in a retrofitted bus that was once a mobile tuberculosis unit, according to the 2018 book Paul Farmer: Servant to the Poor by Jennie Weiss Block.
“This makes my biography a little too neat,” Farmer told The New York Times in 2003. “I mean, we grew up in a TB bus and I became a TB doctor.”
Farmer graduated from Hernando High School as the Class of 1978 valedictorian. The global health champion returned to his hometown in 2008 to receive the annual Great Brooksvillian Award. Former mayor Joe Bernardini met Farmer during the award ceremony at City Hall, where he said the doctor struck him as “very humble.”
“I don’t know if anyone from Brooksville can compare to what he’s done for the world,” Bernardini said.
Farmer wrote 10 books about global health, including Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues (1999) and Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (2003). He was also the subject of the 2017 documentary Bending the Arc.
The doctor won the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture two years ago, an annual $1 million award for a pioneer whose ideas push society to evolve.
In his 2011 commencement address at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, Farmer told the students his philosophy of care for patients with chronic disease and poverty:
“I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while,” he said. “And by ‘a while,’ I don’t mean a little while.”
The doctor’s work often took him away from his wife, Didi Bertrand, a Haitian-born anthropologist currently based in Miami. Farmer is also survived by his three children, Sebastian Farmer, Elizabeth Farmer and Catherine Farmer; mother Ginny Farmer and his five siblings.
Barrie, the late doctor’s friend and mentee of 15 years, said that Farmer taught him to be open to opportunities.
“If you say no, you shut the conversation down,” Barrie said. “You don’t have the opportunity to explore.”
He said Farmer was supposed to travel to Sierra Leone from Rwanda last week.
Farmer would have attended an event to recognize a grant from the World Bank and given a public lecture at the country’s medical school. He had also planned, as he always did, to visit patients alongside clinicians and have dinner with a group of Ebola survivors, including the woman he had helped to find a new home.
Farmer summed up his mission in a 2012 interview for CBS News reporter Jonathan LaPook.
“We want to be able to say that just once that the quality of care we’re giving to people in abject poverty is as good as it would be if they were born in some ritzy part of Manhattan,” Farmer said. “That vision of equity, justice and decency is what we’d like to give birth to.”
Farmer’s life work is unfinished, Barrie said, because not everyone in the world has access to high quality health care. Not even close.
“It’s our job now,” Barrie said.