Dr. Paul Farmer died in his sleep recently while working in Rwanda, one of many health clinics he started in areas of abject poverty. He believed that health care was a human right. Dr. Farmer walked the walk and let his accomplishments speak for themselves. They do. With so many men fighting for personal power and making the innocent suffer for it, reading that Paul died at the age of 62 was a bitter pill to swallow. Below is an article I wrote some years ago.
Why give a single breath to what represents the worst of humanity? When we focus on decency, we give oxygen to the best in us. Love is renewable energy we create when we take time to learn and appreciate people who work to better mankind. It’s about the wolf we feed.
Paul Farmer was born in 1959. After reading about his childhood influences (his father and the environment), the hardship he endured, and the decisions he made, his life serves as an antidote to selfishness and bullying. But this is not about all his accolades and worldly accomplishments. For that, you can read Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Instead, you will learn about his early experiences and the influences that made him a man of compassion and justice.
Young Paul (P.J.) was the second child of six. He spent most of his childhood living in a trailer in Florida. His father, Paul, was a towering and domineering, a “my way or highway,” kind of a person. But he was also the kind of a dad who thought it reasonable P.J. be allowed to have an aquarium in the trailer’s tight quarters. P.J.’s mother, Gin, a farmer’s daughter, worked as a cashier at Winn-Dixie. Trailer living meant shopping daily for groceries and washing the laundry at the local laundromat. The children, who called their father “the Warden,” sought to please him, but he was not one to dole out praise.
In fourth grade (1969), Paul attended his school’s gifted program. Living close to nature, he analyzed and studied critters with the intensity of a future scientist. At ten, he started a herpetology club and invited his classmates to his home, the trailer, for the first meeting. His mother made Rice Krispies Treats. None of the kids came. The Warden decreed that his family would be the club. P.J. dressed up in a bathrobe, held a stick pointing to charcoal drawings he’d made of reptiles and amphibians. A sister remembers thinking, “We should just beat him up and go back out and play.” In time, his siblings’ attention sprouted and his habit of referring to each species by its Latin name became less irritating.
When he was eleven, bookstore owners and parents of another student in the gifted program gave him a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. He read it in two days and then again. He took the book to the library and told the woman at the desk, “I want other books like this.” After a few unsuccessful suggestions, the librarian woman handed him a copy of War and Peace with some misgivings. Returning to the library, he said, “This is it!” Books became faithful companions.
P.J. entered high-school around the time the Warden bought a fifty-foot-long empty hull at a public auction. His negligible carpentry skills and nonexistent electrical know-how didn’t deter him—a trait Paul inherited. The Warden viewed leaving the trailer park, with its fees and rules, for a boat in an uninhabited bayou on the Gulf Coast (Jenkins Creek) as a move to greater independence.
On a leave from his job teaching the mentally impaired, the Warden cursed and yelled through the repairs and construction. He baptized the new home Lady Gin. At one point, when money was scarce, the Warden announced to his sons, “We’re going to pick citrus.”
P.J. said, “But, Dad, white people don’t pick citrus.”
“Yeah?” his father said, “I’ll show you white,” and they kept picking oranges.
The migrant workers up on the ladders picking oranges spoke a strange language, Creole. The Warden described to P.J. the poverty of Haiti. Working for a pittance was better than starving.
Paul’s father loved sports, and two of his sons excelled at all of them. P.J. tried baseball, but family lore held that the only thing he ever hit with a bat was the coach’s son’s head by accident. He went out for tennis and track in high school, where he pushed himself so hard he’d throw up at the finish line. Gin recalling those days: “When I think of it, I could just cry. He wanted to show his father he was an athlete too.” P.J. was popular, especially with the girls. “He listened to them” was his mother’s explanation.
After high school, P.J., a boy from the South who saw hot showers as a luxury, received a full scholarship to Duke University. A fellow dorm mate, Todd McCormick, was the son of a successful sports agent. A couple of classmates’ fathers had bought their sons condominiums so they’d not have to live in a dorm. Paul dated a girl who kept her horse near campus. He joined a fraternity and became the social director. “I was pretty taken by it, by wealth,” Paul tells Tracy Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, ”nearly taken in.”
In his college days, he spent a couple of semesters in Paris with a Franco American family as an au pair. He attended political meetings, became fluent in French, and wrote a paper on gender inequality and depression.
In his first two years at Duke, his family could see he was changing. Home from college wearing a Lacoste shirt, his father said, “Yeah, well, Paul the preppy can still clean the bilge (garbage).” Another time, Paul recalls coming home from college and the Warden opening the back of his dilapidated truck, revealing worthless lumber and wasps flying out. “Someday, son,” the Warden with a sardonic smile, “this will all be yours.”
After his second year at Duke, Paul wrote his fraternity explaining he couldn’t belong to an all-white organization. Like his father, he felt distaste for putting on airs. The fraternity was not who he was. Paul admired his father’s caring for the underdogs – the people at the trailer park and the developmentally disabled adults he worked with. A couple of years later, the Warden died at the age of 49 playing a pickup game of basketball.
Dr. Farmer is not a saint, although many of the people he works with insist he is. He inherited his father’s temper and demanding nature, often directed at his co-workers. His words: “Can’t sympathize too much with staff. You forget the patients.”
Dr. Farmer’s dedication and single-mindedness to serve others is particularly refreshing in an era of global narcissism. It’s an incredible feat with the funding requirements, the politics, educating others, and taking care of patients who have more faith in voodoo than science. The world owes a great debt to Paul and those who dedicate their lives to uplifting the poorest among us.