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On the Passing of Paul Farmer

On Jan. 22, 2010, a team of medical volunteers from Geisel and Dartmouth-Hitchcock met with Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during relief efforts after a massive earthquake struck the region. (Dartmouth Medicine, Sp2010 - Photo courtesy Jim Geiling MD.)

All of us at the Center for Global Health Equity are heartbroken to learn of the sudden and untimely death of our global health colleague, friend, and hero, Dr. Paul Farmer. Paul forever changed the course of healthcare delivery in resource-limited settings as he constantly advocated for health and health care as a right and not a privilege. His work has directly and indirectly touched the lives of so many from Boston to Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, and beyond.

Personally, I will always remember Paul’s generosity with his patients, his learners, and his colleagues. I first met Paul almost 30 years ago before I left Boston to lead a tuberculosis (TB) care and prevention project in Kosovo. A mutual friend suggested I contact him given his experience with treating TB in Haiti. Paul was just starting his infectious disease fellowship and we met in Partners in Health’s small Cambridge office on a quiet Saturday morning. I had a handful of questions and thought we might meet for about an hour. But if you knew Paul you will not be surprised to hear we spent 8 hours together that day—the conversation easily continuing through the afternoon as we talked through what were later termed the social determinants of health, health inequities, and equitable healthcare delivery for all. Paul had a magical gift of making you feel like you were the most important person at that moment by giving you his complete and undivided attention. He was one of the most present people I’d ever met.

As his prominence in this field grew, so did his circle of colleagues, likely into the thousands. Yet, he retained this ability to connect sincerely and authentically. I was in touch with him just a few months ago about one of his students and again marveled at how deep his connections to his students ran. I think his commitment to humanity came so naturally and was felt so passionately because of his ability to connect with others. So, while there are many things that we ought to pay tribute to about the life and legacy of Paul Farmer - the clinics he built, the policies he changed, the status quo that he disrupted, and many other triumphs that will be shared as the global health community comes together to mourn this tragic loss - I hope his ability to connect with and care for every patient, student, colleague, and friend as the unique individual they are will also be among his honored qualities. He taught us that important singular lesson that the pandemic has only reinforced:  we need to take care of each other, always.

Paul would be the first to say this work is not about one person and the best thing we can do to honor his memory is to double down on our commitment to global health equity. Let this serve as a moment for all of us to reflect on the meaning of our work and our long-term commitment to it, and the contributions big or small that we can make, through our individual and collective actions, to promoting global health equity.

- Dr. Lisa V. Adams