Humanitarian Doctor 'Didn't Take No for an Answer'

Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, who helped impoverished people worldwide, dies at 62
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 22, 2022 10:20 AM CST
Humanitarian Doctor 'Didn't Take No for an Answer'
In this picture taken Jan. 10, 2012, Partners in Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer is seen during the inauguration of a national referral and teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti.   (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery, file)

Dr. Paul Farmer, a US physician, humanitarian, and author renowned for providing health care to millions of impoverished people worldwide, and who co-founded the global nonprofit Partners in Health, has died. He was 62. The Boston-based organization confirmed Farmer's death on Monday, calling it "devastating" and noting he unexpectedly passed away in his sleep from an acute cardiac event while in Rwanda, where he'd been teaching, per the AP. Farmer was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the division of global health equity at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He wrote extensively on health, human rights, and social inequality, according to Partners in Health.

Partners in Health, founded in 1987, said its mission is "to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care." The organization began its work in Cange, a rural village in Haiti's central plateau, and later expanded its operations to regions including Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder traveled with Farmer for a month as the doctor treated prisoners and impoverished people in Haiti, Moscow, and Paris. "He couldn't obviously go and cure the whole world all by himself, but he could, with [the] help of his friends, give proof of possibility," Kidder says. One of Kidder's strongest memories of Farmer occurred in Peru, where the doctor was treating patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. Kidder recalled a woman wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt who followed them to their car, looking very shy.

With her head down, she said, "Thank you" to Farmer in Spanish. Kidder recalled: "Paul turned, took each of her hands in his, and said, 'For me, it is a privilege,' in Spanish." He added that Farmer was instrumental in getting AIDS treatments and created various health systems around the world. "It really humiliates the naysayers, who think it's somehow OK for some people to get health care and others not," Kidder said. "It just drove him nuts." Michelle Karshan, vice president of a nonprofit prison health care system in Haiti who worked closely with Farmer, said he was determined, innovative, and always knew how to get around obstacles and bureaucracy. "He didn't take no for an answer," she said. "He didn't think anybody was too poor or too illiterate to be entitled to receive health care."

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She noted that when the World Health Organization resisted giving HIV medication to people who were illiterate in Haiti for fear they wouldn't know when or how to take it, Farmer set up his own program and created a chart that relied on the sun's position. He also hired people known as "accompaniers" who'd hike through Haiti's rough mountainous terrain to make sure patients had water and food and were taking their medications. "I'm so sad for all the people who are not going to have him in their lives. He was there for everybody," Karshan said. Farmer is survived by his Haitian wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.

(More Paul Farmer stories.)

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