Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Health

Brooksville’s Paul Farmer remembered as global health champion

“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,” said Farmer, who died at the age of 62.
In this photo from the early 2000s, Dr. Paul Farmer treats a patient in Haiti at the clinic he helped found there. The internationally-renowned doctor, humanitarian, anthropologist, author and professor who grew up in Brooksville and attended Hernando High School died Feb. 21 at the age of 62.
In this photo from the early 2000s, Dr. Paul Farmer treats a patient in Haiti at the clinic he helped found there. The internationally-renowned doctor, humanitarian, anthropologist, author and professor who grew up in Brooksville and attended Hernando High School died Feb. 21 at the age of 62. [ Times ]
Published Feb. 26|Updated Feb. 28

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.

Dr. Paul Farmer
Dr. Paul Farmer [ John Ra/Partners in Health ]

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.

Dr. Paul Farmer talks to other dignitaries during the 2010 cornerstone ceremony for a new 320-bed teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti.
Dr. Paul Farmer talks to other dignitaries during the 2010 cornerstone ceremony for a new 320-bed teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti. [ WALLACE, DANIEL | St. Petersburg Times ]

“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.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

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.”

Related: From 2008: Brooksville honors doctor on a quest

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.

Paul Farmer's photo in the Hernando High School 1977-78 yearbook.
Paul Farmer's photo in the Hernando High School 1977-78 yearbook. [ HANDOUT | Times files ]

“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.

Paul Farmer, center, sits with his mother Ginny Farmer, left, and daughter Catherine, 11, while accepting the 2008 Great Brooksvillian Award at City Hall in Brooksville. Farmer was a 1978 graduate of Hernando High School.
Paul Farmer, center, sits with his mother Ginny Farmer, left, and daughter Catherine, 11, while accepting the 2008 Great Brooksvillian Award at City Hall in Brooksville. Farmer was a 1978 graduate of Hernando High School. [ DANIEL WALLACE | St. Petersburg Times ]

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.”

Related: From 2004: The roots of compassion

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.

Paul Farmer visits an Ebola survivor and her family in Sierra Leone with colleague Bailor Barrie in 2015.
Paul Farmer visits an Ebola survivor and her family in Sierra Leone with colleague Bailor Barrie in 2015. [ Bailor Barrie ]

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.

In this photo from the early 2000s, Paul Farmer treats a patient in Haiti at the clinic he helped found there.
In this photo from the early 2000s, Paul Farmer treats a patient in Haiti at the clinic he helped found there. [ MARK ROSENBERG | PARTNERS IN HEALTH ]
Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge