Pale Wire (Popscene)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Dokté Paul

This morning I finished reading "Mountains Beyond Mountains," Tracy Kidder's book about Paul Farmer, a relentlessly dedicated physician who has given his life to battling third-world disease tooth and nail, never writing off a life. It's a cause that many smart people call a losing battle hopelessly focused on the little picture. But Farmer, a trenchant critic of inequality and committed advocate for the poor, disagrees, arguing at the top of his voice for service to the poor as a moral imperative.

In the mid-1980s, amidst the dirty and downtrodden of Haiti's central plateau, one of the poorest areas in one the world's poorest countries, Farmer established a small clinic that came to be known as Partners in Health. His three-person group eventually grew into a multinational agency helping the poor and diseased all over the world. Farmer was vaulted to international renown in the worlds of medicine and anthropology. While the ascent transformed the good doctor from an unknown front-line clinician—Haiti's Albert Schweitzer, you might say—into an international player in the billion dollar field of "public health," Dokté Paul, as his Haitian patients call him, never wavered in his commitment to the most vulnerable.

Kidder's book is a tight piece of long-form journalism. Of course, you learn all about Paul Farmer, his youth, formation, education, personality, career, and family. But you also learn the history of the beleaguered nation of Haiti, visit its bustling hills, and taste of its bitter legacy; you learn how decisions made at a far-flung clinic, where one patient may be that day's focus, fit into the larger picture of international health policy, formed at great distance by competing and complex groups of bureaucrats assembled seasonally at Europe's toniest resorts; and, perhaps the most compelling reason to recommend the book, you may learn something about yourself.

It was a sobering thing to measure myself against the women and men in this book. I'm not a religious person, but I don't feel the least bit uncomfortable calling Paul Farmer a saint. And, like an intermittent Catholic awed before the church's beautified exemplars, I can hold up my life for comparison and feel shame. According to Farmer, that's a good thing: guilt is a motivator.

The doctor never cuts his nut just right, but I think his core message may have been best articulated by Jack Egan, a recently deceased priest who, when not busy crusading for his latest cause, was known to grab the nearest man, women, or child by the arm and ask "What are you doing for justice?"