If this book had been written, and I had read it in high school or college, I probably would have applied to Harvard Medical School. It’s that much of a radically life changing book.
Tracy Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who has given his life to transforming health care in Haiti, one of the poorest nations on earth. Brilliant, driven, perfectionistic, personally charismatic and persuasive, Farmer is one of those people who looks at the seemingly insurmountable problems in the world, and finds ways to tackle them. He’s changed worldwide medical views on treatment of tuberculosis and AIDS, yet what makes him feel alive is treating patients.
What moved me about the story of his life is his ability to see the big picture of the world better than most, without losing the view of the individual. His program at Harvard earned him an M.D. as well as a Ph.D in anthropology. That mix served him well, and it intrigues me. He’s a brilliant doctor, with a personal magnetism that seems to make everyone he comes in contact with feel like the most important person in the world. He’s socially astute enough to critique social policy and governmental issues in ways that challenge our American false sense of separateness from the poverty of the world.
The issues he raises and which are addressed in this book are overwhelmingly difficult. Yet somehow, the overall feeling at the end of the book is one of hope. Maybe I could make a difference!
The author does a fairly good job of challenging Farmer, in particular about the cost effectiveness of much of what Farmer does. Antiretroviral drugs for people who don’t have enough to eat? Medivac flights from Haiti to the States, costing $20,000, for a patient who dies?
One of the last events narrated in the book is the author’s seven hour hike with Farmer to check up on whether two patients are taking their medication. This, when Farmer is needed in Russia and Peru, where his organization Partners in Health is creating ground-breaking tuberculosis treatment programs.
“I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow his example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”
You must read this book. It’s unclear what Farmer’s own spiritual views are, but he quotes Matthew 25 as his life mission, and he speaks eloquently and knowledgably about the preferential treatment of the poor found in liberation theology. We need more Jesus followers who will put their lives on the line to say that no life matters less than another.