Contact with the work and the ideas of Dr. Paul Farmer has changed my life. I see now as blindingly obvious something I never realized before, that the poor and powerless among us deserve the very best care of anyone. That healthcare, and by extension clean water, nutritious food, a decent place to live, and a good education are human rights that we as a society should work diligently to extend to everyone. Not only that, but it's highly doable, and we just need to go on and do it, and not pay attention to the idea that it can't be done.
You can feel in the book the real love that Paul Farmer and all those at Partners in Health (PIH) have for their patients. They don't stop at dispensing medicine but take responsibility to see that the patient gets what he or she needs to be well, whether it's food supplementation, a new floor and roof for their shack, a supply of uncontaminated water, or someone to come around every day and look after them and make sure they take their medicine. Their passionate commitment to helping people who need their help shines out like a beacon of hope in the world's darkness.
When I was a junior in high school, long ago in the newly-integrated Birmingham (AL) City Schools, a man named Paul Farmer headed a program I took part in called the Executive Internship Program. About 30 of us kids, black and white, juniors and seniors from schools all across the city, were selected by Farmer and formed into a cohesive, creative group of true friends. Mr. Farmer had a way about him that was contagious of treating everyone like they really mattered.
That was a fantastic group of people and we made close and lasting friendships there. At the time it was rare to see close friendships between black and white kids. I remember meeting one friend for lunch and having this elderly lady walk a big half-circle around us to get a good look at me and be sure I was really white, then staring at us in hostility because my friend was black. It made us giggle. I remember getting in trouble at work later on, when I was a co-op student in engineering, for taking a mixed group of black and white coworkers to lunch because they'd helped me a lot over several months by setting up my sales displays and so on. The company they worked for got extremely hostile to me for having the temerity to socialize in mixed-race groups at work. They called me some ugly names, in fact, and said they didn't want me to come back there ever again.
See, at that time the country had given up on grown-ups ever solving the problem of racial bigotry and had decided to make the kids do it for them. So we went to school together and did form real friendships, with the help of some great grownups like Mr. Farmer, and we learned not to care so much what people's ethnic background was. We learned to see each other as people who mattered.
I wonder now if it's possible that my Mr. Farmer from high school was Dr. Paul Farmer's dad. I read that his dad's name was indeed Paul Farmer and that he did teach in Birmingham city schools at one point. So it seems like it has to be the same guy, only the dates don't match up exactly (mine was in 1975) and the one picture of Dr. Paul's dad that I saw online didn't look at all familiar to me. I have no memory of what my Mr. Farmer looked like, actually, but I would think I would feel some glimmer of recognition if it were him. So I'm just not sure. But it's intriguing. I'd like to talk to Dr. Paul and see if we could figure it out. Dr. Paul's way of treating everyone like they really matter DOES feel familiar to me, and it's the same. So I feel as though he's part of my family. I think whether he is or not, I'll just claim him regardless. =)
I've been reading more about PIH, their model of treating the poor in Haiti, the work they're doing in Peru, Russia, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere, and the history of the organization. They've won a lot of battles, it seems, particularly in getting the drug companies to lower the price of drugs important for treating MDR-TB, multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, and HIV AIDS. They've won over the WHO policymakers to the policy that it *is* worthwhile and responsible to treat the poorest, the sickest, prisoners, etc. with the best treatments we have. Before that the idea had been to let the worst most hopeless cases just die without treatment. They've done amazing things.
This book comes to me at a time when I've spent my last few years fighting with the nation's health care system to get my son treated for his Lyme neuroborreliosis. In the course of this struggle, I've come up against, time and again, people who can't see that they're choosing expedience and going along to get along over my son's life and wellbeing. I've also been struggling with my insurance company to get them to recognize that my struggle against Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, and Immune Deficiency is real. Autoimmune disorders in general are fairly well hidden, plus they strike women far more often than men, so it's easy for the powers-that-be to dismiss and overlook them. Into this context of struggling against harsh and unfeeling bureaucracy, of wanting sometimes to scream in rage and frustration at the unyielding system, the huge machine, who cares not if my young son's life is at stake... in the middle of this drops Dr. Farmer's refreshing idea that people's lives matter. It flowed like a stream of sweet water into a parched desert. The kind you drink from and never thirst again.
So now I'm trying to find a way to help PIH's efforts in Haiti and across the world. This is something I know I want to be a part of. I know this idea is true. I have a sincere testimony from the depths of my deepest self that this is the right path for me to follow. As I said, this was lifechanging.
The book itself is excellent and I highly recommend it. I can only give it 4 stars, though, because as a book, it has some real flaws and left me ultimately disappointed. It's as though Tracy Kidder can't bring himself, in the end, to commit. He waffles. He sees it but then again he doesn't quite get it. There were many times I was deeply touched. The writing is definitely good. Do read the book. I think it's an important book. But if it leaves you disappointed in the end, as it did me, then turn to other sources of information. Go and watch Paul Farmer's talks online, there are tons of interviews and speeches he's made that have been recorded. Do that and then tell me if he's part of your family too, if you're part of our family. It's an awesome family, and I'm so glad to be a member of it.