If you think you don’t do enough, care enough, give enough the story of Dr. Paul Farmer will wipe out all doubts. Tracy Kidder’s eloquent account of Farmer’s crusade to wipe out disease and save the poor–worldwide–depicts a man whose aspirations dwarf his accomplishments but whose accomplishments dwarf any but those of the most Schweitzerlike among us.
Mountains Beyond Mountains tracks Farmer’s life from his hippie upbringing–living on a bus, then a boat–through his prodigy childhood and early career, and up to 2002, by which time he had established himself as perhaps the leading deliverer of cures to poor people in the world. The guy is an intellectual phenomenon, for one thing. He goes to Harvard Med, collecting an MD and a PhD while simultaneously establishing a boondocks clinic in Haiti that brings medical care to people who have no other. Along the way, he collects a MacArthur grant, builds relationships with people and foundations who funnel money into his Haiti project and become pipelines for funding when he later expands.
While he’s “in school” he’s on a mad travel schedule between Boston and Port au Prince, teaching, lecturing, doctoring. Throughout, he maintains personal contact with his patients. During his Junior year abroad in Paris, he became fluent in French, which helps him some with learning the special Haitian dialect, which is pretty much a language of its own, though it is derived as much from French as from a composite of African languages. Later, when he sets up operations in Peru, he’ll learn Spanish, then some Russian so he can talk to the folks in the Russian prisons. By this time, he’s commuting among Boston, Port au Prince, Lima, and Moscow regularly plus going off here and there to raise money and spread his knowledge and opinions at any conference he thinks might pay off. Always, though, he returns to Haiti. As Kidder puts it, he’s like a weird compass with one leg swinging around the globe, the other solidly planted in Haiti.
He will hike seven hours over mountain and stream to see a patient, pay $20, 000 for a medivac flight for which he has no money. He gathers around him a staff of nearly equal intellect, but no one can match his dedication. Still, they remain devoted, working long hours for little money, and together they build an organization–Partners in Health–with a stunning record. They revolutionize the treatment of TB, devising ways to cure TB which has become resistant to known drugs, and–this is harder–selling the rest of the establishment on the notion that theirs is the way to go about it and–harder still–bringing the prices of the drugs down to almost-manageable levels. They also treat and educate about malaria and HIV to a wide population. They also treat all comers with all the ailments that flesh is heir to.
And always, he is railing against the structure of government and morality that makes all his efforts necessary. People deserve good medicine, period. There’s plenty of money around to deliver it, and not only is it inexcusable not to do so, but corrupt and sinful as well.
Kidder spends a lot of time with Farmer, and at points gets worn out. He’s frank about how hard the guy is to digest sometimes. He’s also frank about how difficult it is to keep up with him, how personally the crusading doc treats every patient, every e-mail, every communication. No matter how you look at this guy’s life, you probably won’t measure up, so just forget it and go ahead and read this and be amazed, glad he’s here to help, and more than a little bit guilty.