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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – Deckle Edge, August 25, 2009
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Adult/High School-Thought-provoking and profoundly satisfying, this book will inspire feelings of humility, admiration, and disquietude; in some readers, it may sow the seeds of humanitarian activism. As a specialist in infectious diseases, Farmer's goal is nothing less than redressing the "steep gradient of inequality" in medical service to the desperately poor. His work establishing a complex of public health facilities on the central plateau of Haiti forms the keystone to efforts that now encompass initiatives on three continents. Farmer and a trio of friends began in the 1980s by creating a charitable foundation called Partners in Health (PIH, or Zanmi Lasante in Creole), armed with passionate conviction and $1 million in seed money from a Boston philanthropist. Kidder provides anecdotal evidence that their early approach to acquiring resources for the Haitian project at times involved a Robin Hood type of "redistributive justice" by liberating medical equipment from the "rich" (Harvard) and giving to the "poor" (the PIH clinic). Yet even as PIH has grown in size and sophistication, gaining the ability to influence and collaborate with major international organizations because of the founders' energy, professional credentials, and successful outcomes, their dedicated vision of doctoring to the poor remains unaltered. Farmer's conduct is offered as a "road map to decency," albeit an uncompromising model that nearly defies replication. This story is remarkable, and Kidder's skill in sequencing both dramatic and understated elements into a reflective commentary is unsurpassed.
Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New England Journal of Medicine
Paul Farmer is a 44-year-old specialist in infectious diseases and an attending physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. His biographer, Tracy Kidder, read his book on the connections between poverty and disease -- Infections and Inequalities -- and wrote to him, "I'm reading your oeuvre." "Ah, but that's not my oeuvre," Farmer replied. "To see my oeuvre you have to come to Haiti." Indeed, Farmer founded a hospital and health center, Zanmi Lasante, in Cange, Haiti, hours from the capital and at the end of a gutted road in a region destitute even by Haiti's standards, as part of an extensive community-based health network linked to a hospital, Clinique Bon Sauveur (see Figure). For more than 20 years, Farmer has spent many months every year there, often taking care of patients himself and continually improving the treatments offered by the clinic. These now include antiretroviral drugs. Lasante is supported by a foundation based in Boston called Partners in Health, which is headed by Ophelia Dahl and largely financed by Tom White, the philanthropic owner of a large Boston construction firm. There is more. Through his patients in Cange, Farmer became interested in multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. From Haiti, he exported treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis to Peru and then to Siberia, achieving cure rates comparable to those in the United States. Through the Institute for Health and Social Justice (the research and education division of Partners in Health) and his associate Jim Yong Kim, he started a movement to lower prices for the second-line drugs necessary to treat resistant tuberculosis and successfully lobbied the World Health Organization for changes in treatment recommendations for tuberculosis. Readers may have heard some of this story before (Farmer has received a MacArthur award and the American Medical Association's Dr. Nathan Davis Award) and may have wondered, as I did, where he came from and how one man could accomplish so much. Kidder traces Farmer's trajectory, starting with his unconventional childhood, which included living in a bus and on a leaky boat. He was given a scholarship to Duke, where he majored in anthropology and worked alongside poor Haitian farm workers in North Carolina's tobacco fields. After graduation he spent a year in Haiti, where he met Ophelia Dahl, and then went to Harvard Medical School. While in medical school and during his residencies and fellowships, he spent more time in Cange than in Boston. How does Farmer do it? Kidder provides some explanations: he works nonstop, hardly sleeps, sees his wife and child for a day or so every few months, inspires an uncommon degree of devotion and enthusiasm among collaborators and potential donors, and tolerates planes and airports for days on end. In addition, the Boston medical establishment has bent rules and regulations to accommodate his needs. Convincing? Maybe. There remains something miraculous about Paul Farmer. Should one go out and buy Mountains beyond Mountains? By all means. Not only it is it an enjoyable book, but it is also very likely that a part of the $25.95 spent in purchasing it will find its way back to Haiti. That is more than can be said about many books. In addition, readers looking for a worthwhile charity to support may be inspired to send some money to Partners in Health. Bernard Hirschel, M.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Farmer's life work has been about bringing health care to the poor and the imprisoned. In the case of the poor, mainly to the peasants of Haiti and the TB-ridden inhabitants of the slums of Lima, Peru. In the case of the imprisoned, the prisoners in Russia with multi-drug resistant TB.
Astoundingly, Farmer worked his way through Harvard Medical School while spending most of his time in Haiti, putting into practice every day what he was learning through his studies. Mostly, he did his studies remotely. I would guess that he may have been the only student in the medical school's history to have ever done that. While he showed up only to take his exams, it was hard for the university administration to object since he was one of the top students.
After graduation, he simply continued what he was already doing, ministering to the poorest of the poor. Slowly, he built up a far-flung organization around him, staffed by a mixture of low-paid professionals and unpaid volunteers, and largely funded by donations from a Boston real estate developer. In Haiti, they built a hospital in a remote location on the central plateau, expanding it piece by piece as funding allowed, and eventually turned it into a pilgrimage place for the international health community and the rural poor alike.
On the side, Farmer put out an astounding variety and quantity of books, articles and speeches. Over the last 20 years or so, he appears to have single-handedly published about as much as an entire university department. That he did this while trekking to remote Haitian villages, flying around the world constantly, running clinics and hospitals, AND practicing hands-on medicine, passes all understanding.
This man is a sort of Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer and Carl Sagan all rolled into one. The story would seem unbelievable if I didn't have confidence in the author, Tracy Kidder, a couple of whose books I have read and who did in fact spend several years writing this book. Interestingly, this is the first of his books where he actually appears as an active participant and not simply an observer. I guess this was the kind of story where to pretend to be the impartial narrator would have seemed downright callous.