Sunday, October 26, 2008

Paul Farmer (My Sacred Life, Sunday)

I can easily recall a time in my life when all avenues were open. It was as a freshman in college, attending a school known the world over for its excellence, getting the chance to see Nobel Prize winners up close and ask them questions (not that I ever did...but I had the opportunity).

Circumstances and my own evolution as a participant in this game we are playing as Gods dressed up in Earth suits led, eventually, to where I sit this morning, typing this for you to read and for me to cogitate upon.

While I could spend months detailing all that went on in those intervening decades, I don't know how germane it is today. Today, instead, I wish to highlight the life and ongoing contribution of someone I have never met. There are some parallels.

Paul Farmer stood at a similar place at the beginning of his college career as I did. We were half a dozen years apart, me being the older of the two of us. Paul attended Duke University as an undergraduate. I was born on the campus of the University of North Carolina only a few miles away, making us natural opponents. I have since forgiven Paul.

Soon after graduating from Duke, he began what has turned into a decades-long commitment to the people of Haiti. In 1983, he made his first trip to the Central Plateau of Haiti. Here lived displaced peasants who, in the 1950’s, lost their farmland when a major dam was created to provide power to Port-au-Prince, hours away. Theirs was a subsistence-farmer's lifestyle before the dam. Afterward, they had only rocky hills upon which to build squatter's shacks.

The conditions were among the worst in the world, with fatal illnesses from simple diseases only compounding an impossible situation.

By the time he had earned his medical degree, along with a PhD in Medical Anthropology from Harvard in 1990, Paul Farmer was already years past the founding of the organization to which he has devoted more than twenty years: Partners In Health.

In the Central Plateau of Haiti, he established Zanmi Lasante (literally "Partners in Health" in the local Kreyol), the cradle from which sprang this amazingly efficient and now world-wide organization. This was 1983. Farmer was 24 years old.

Thomas White, a wealthy man who has invested virtually his entire fortune in PIH, officially oversaw the founding in 1987.

What Paul Farmer and his fellow founders, Ophelia Dahl and Jim Yong Kim, have done is prove to the world that difficult-to-treat diseases such as drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS are treatable, even among the poorest populations on the planet.

Financial backing from angel Thomas White provided the necessary jump-start. Today, Partners in Health has active programs in eight countries, including a pioneering program in the heart of the poorest section of Boston to bring AIDS and HIV-related treatment to those who most need it and have no means of acquiring it.

The magic? Partners In Health has developed a program which focuses on teaching people in the community to provide, for each other, the basics of care. Many times, treatment of the poor fails because of a failure to follow the protocols of the treatment. Poor people simply have more-basic needs in mind than remembering to take their pills.

By training local citizens to provide that daily visit, to be the human reminder of the pills to be taken or the trip to the doctor which was required that day, Farmer and cohorts have proven that it is possible to change the situation for the TB sufferers in Peru and the AIDS-infected in Russia.

In a coming together of two lives, two men I greatly admire ended up together. Tracy Kidder has written a book about Farmer, a book which is a different sort of book for Kidder. This time, it is in the first person. Kidder was drawn into Farmer's world, and the story of that experience is now my favorite Kidder book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. It was published in 2003.

It is impossible for me to properly honor Paul Farmer in this short piece, and it is equally difficult to describe the amazing journey you can travel if you seek out the Tracy Kidder book and read it.

It is the saddest book I have ever read, and it is also the most inspirational.

Back to the old guy sitting in front of his laptop this morning before the sun has decided to light up his world one more time...

Just as the world needs heroes like Paul Farmer, the world also needs those who are the support team, the folks who are not heroes but who show up, day after day, month after month, and year after year. They are the bedrock and the stable presence which allows the more-public, more-spectacular performances to occur.

That's me, folks. My job? IT infrastructure support. Think of the unsung umpire or the little-noticed person responsible for setting the pole-vault bar perfectly before the next attempt by an Olympic-qualifying athlete. If we mess up, we suddenly are known to everyone. If we do our jobs well, though, no one knows or is even aware of us.

My job at home? Supporting my amazing teacher/author/speaker/spiritual counselor wife. Appropriately, she is the public face of our partnership, and yet, to her credit, she understands that I bring an important part to our partnership which we offer the world in her name.

I'm a dad to four daughters ranging in age from 16 to 22. All of them are pursuing what they love, and I could not be happier for them or prouder of them.

And, that kid who 37 years ago stood on the roof of Millikan Library at 2 a.m., surveying what he expected to be his home for some years to come? He didn't make it through freshman year.

Who knows? Maybe that story is one I will choose to tell one day. Not today, though, as today, I am opening up the "It Just Makes Cents" campaign. My donation, the amount of which I will determine a week from now, will be sent to Partners In Health to do my little part to further the work of Paul Farmer.


Angela said...

What a wonderful thing to be a part of, Rick. And I, for one, am definitely interested in the story of why you didn't make it through freshman year. :)

Rick Hamrick said...

I promise, Angela--should I ever tell that story, I'll make sure you know about it.