RIP Paul Farmer, Medical Pioneer and Humanitarian Who ‘Tried to Heal the World’: A Personal Recollection

Dr. Paul Farmer died of a heart attack in his sleep on February 21st at a medical center he helped found in rural Rwanda. The news of his death was received with an outpouring of deep sadness, anguish, and shock by those who knew him and so many more who admired him all over the world.

Farmer was an incredible human being who impacted many people and who literally changed the world. He challenged the powers that be in the international health policy field and forced changes in the way healthcare is delivered to the most marginalized and impoverished people on planet earth. He was a full professor at Harvard Medical School and a world-renowned and widely published clinician and infectious disease expert whose CV ran to 120 pages.

He wrote 12 books about public health and poverty. He revolutionized the treatment of AIDS and tuberculosis in impoverished communities. He founded a world-class hospital in the rural central region of Haiti. At barely 28 years of age, he co-founded “Partners in Health” the ground-breaking international medical organization that serves as his legacy and now employs over 18,000 healthcare workers in poor communities around the world. Through all of these achievements, he exuded a rare personal humility and love that touched every person who interacted with him from the high and mighty to the lowliest, destitute, and forlorn of humanity.

The many eulogies and appreciations that are being published about Dr. Farmer in the days since his passing are remarkable for their intensity, emotion, and superlative praise. Former President Bill Clinton said Farmer was “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known.” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said “The weight of the loss is in many ways personal, to the country of Rwanda, to my family, and to myself. I know there are many who feel this way in Africa and beyond.” The Dean of the Harvard Medical School, George Daley, said Farmer was “among the greatest humanitarians of our time—perhaps [of] all time…”

Dr. Anthony Fauci reportedly broke down in tears upon learning of Dr. Farmer’s death. And Fr. John Dear, a Jesuit Priest who knew Paul Farmer since they were together in college, wrote that he should be “canonized as a saint.”

According to Tracy Kidder’s best selling 2003 book about Dr. Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Farmer often quoted from and was inspired by the words of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” For Paul Farmer, these were words to live by. Till the very end of his life, he continued to treat and live among his patients in Haiti, Rwanda, and anywhere he was needed.

I had the honor of meeting Paul when we were both recent college graduates—he from Duke and myself from Brandeis. For the summer after graduation, we were roommates and participants in the Mellon Fellowship in Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. The young Paul I met and worked/studied with that summer was an unforgettable character that even then exhibited the traits that would launch his epic life’s mission.

In our conversations, he was playfully opinionated and unusually curious. He was a great listener and a kind friend who spread joy and optimism to all who encountered him. And he was already obsessively interested in Haiti and its people and was studying the Haitian Creole language. And it was very obvious that he had a very rare and sharp intellect and a fierce commitment to excellence. Shortly after our summer fellowship, he traveled to Haiti for the first time. The rest was history.

In our deep mourning for this exceptional and magnificent human being, we can marvel at what he leaves behind and at the lesson of his life: that one individual can indeed “repair the world,” or at least a part of it.

May his family be comforted by the love Paul spread and is now receiving back from so many, all over the world.

Rest In Peace and in Power valiant friend and roommate from long ago. May your life continue to inspire millions.