In a world with very few true heroes, Dr. Paul Farmer was a hero of mine. Paul died in his sleep on Feb. 21st, at the much-too-young age of 62, doing what he loved – spending time at the teaching hospital he founded in in Northern Rwanda. (Tracey Kidder, who authored the book about Paul, Mountain Beyond Mountains, wrote this week that he was told that on Monday, Paul “had been up late the night before, seeing patients, which in my experience was for him the equivalent of a night on the town.”)
Being Paul’s one-millionth closest friend, or if I am honest probably his 10 millionth, I have been surprised at the depth of my emotion over these past few days. So I want to share a bit about Paul for those who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him, as well as a few thoughts on what we can learn from his life.
Others much more articulate than I have tried this week to summarize Paul in a few sentences. Samantha Powers, the head of USAID, wrote, “Devastating news. Paul Farmer gave everything—everything—to others. He saw the worst, and yet did all he could to bring out the best in everyone he encountered. Indefatigable, mischievous, generous, brilliant, soulful, skeptical, idealistic, beloved. A giant.” And Dr. Atul Gawande, tweeted, “Paul, friend to so many, champion for billions, inspiration to all, it cannot be that you are gone.”
Paul’s life story is as simple as it is inspiring: a basic upbringing (including a few years when his family lived in a van), an undergrad degree from Duke University, and then a fateful choice to go to Haiti to volunteer at a hospital before attending medical school. What he saw there – and chose not to ignore – changed the course of his life. He couldn’t believe that this hospital that was supposed to serve the poor actually did not, because they turned away those who couldn’t pay. He then devoted his life to his mantra that “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
The remainder of his life flowed from that decision to not ignore what he had seen. They say he graduated from Harvard Medical School while spending most of his time in Haiti, skipping classes and only returning to take exams. If only half the stories are true, it is stuff that is made-for-TV (and it was, in a film called Bending the Arc). They say he often racked up large bills at a few Boston hospital pharmacies when he would check-out supplies and medicines to bring with him, unapproved, to Haiti.
I got to spend time with Paul annually in Oxford for a few years, because we were both recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2008. Or, put another way, because of a cosmic scheduling mistake. It is like the New York Yankees were scheduled to play at the same stadium as my daughter’s high school softball team. He was in the major leagues, and the rest of us were from the minor, minor leagues.
By the time I met him, I knew his story and my mother was a big fan of his from the book. So, naturally, I expected not to like him, since he was famous. After a half day sitting around a table with a pretty small group, I went to the bathroom and he walked in. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said, “Paul, so what’s it like to be famous?” He didn’t miss a beat and said, “Great for your work; terrible for your personal life.” (And, it seems to me from afar that his personal life had to shrink and suffer to accommodate his frenetic travel.)
The real deal
Later that week, we had the chance to meet President Jimmy Carter before he gave out the awards. Of course, the rest of us minor leaguers were trying to act low-key and professional. President Carter walks in the room, looks around, and says, “Hey Paul, great to see you again” and they start reminiscing about various adventures over time. A few hours later we are in the fancy Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford for the ceremony and Carter gives a very moving speech about poverty in Africa. Paul is sitting behind me and I see him tearing up. I wasn’t even thinking logically but I think my subconscious was thinking, “Hold on, this guy has been at this work for a few decades already, has been to White House a few times, has seen everything and met everyone, he can’t be so emotional.” On the way out, I said, “Paul, do you have asthma or something?”. He said, “No, stupid, I was emotional.” (He then warmly took a photo with me for my mom which made her proud.)
And so it was with Paul, he was the real deal. He was famous, but unlike many others, he never lost his sense of reality, what was right and wrong. Long before people spoke about privilege and decolonizing power, Paul undertook the good fight. As another doctor tweeted this week, “I spent last week w/ Paul in rural Rwanda rounding on patients. This past week an AIDS patient passed away and Paul was incredibly devastated. I remember thinking this is why he is Paul Farmer, after 40 years, losing a patient was like losing the whole world.”
Life lessons for all
So, what can we learn from his life, besides, of course, to hug those close to you as it can end at any time?
As a starting point, as Jeff Badrach from Bridgespan noted to me this week, Paul would be the first to tell you that he didn’t believe in the model of an individual hero saving the world. But goodness, while I have only seen a small part of the outpouring this week, it actually might be that Paul proved that, while one can’t do everything, one person can inspire thousands, and all together they can certainly get a lot done, and this can last long beyond the spark’s life.
And I am sure I am seeing in his life the lessons I want but thinking about his experience gives me, and I hope all of you, motivation to keep on our path.
As Raj Punjabi wrote this week, when he went to see Paul as a first year medical student, and asked for career advice, Paul said, “do what you love, but commit to it over the long-term — measured by decades, not years — and do it with many others.” And indeed, while hard to believe, we have been at DDD for 2 decades now, and we have certainly done the work together, “with many others”, who were either friends or became friends along the way.
As well, someone else reflected that Paul “moved easily between settings of poverty and places of power and he was able to make those connections.” I have always thought that this was at the heart of our joint enterprise at DDD. Bridging the divide – the digital divide, or more accurately, the equity divide – between those with wealth and resources and opportunities, and those with much less. Each time a new client or donor joined us at DDD, I always felt we were closing that divide a bit more. While Paul made the case that everyone deserves access to proper health care, we have made the case that each person deserves an opportunity to realize their potential and work hard to support their families.
And finally, Paul was the ultimate in demonstrating that Roger Martin’s concept of the “opposable mind” was true. Paul taught us that it is all true. We have to be angry at the state of the world, and hopeful that change is possible. We need to be despondent about the forces working against improvements and in awe that there are millions fewer people in abject poverty today than a few decades ago. We need to walk around each day with the recognition of the fragility of life and the injustice everywhere (as I type this from my NY apartment, just think of those in Afghanistan or Ukraine in a desperate search for even just food). But we also need to laugh and enjoy ourselves.
Most importantly, Paul taught us, we just need to do something, take some action, almost any action even if it isn’t the most strategic, to help someone else beyond ourselves. Every day, until we can’t any longer.
If there is one person among us who did more than his own fair share to help others, and who deserves to rest, it is Paul. May he rest in peace. I can say for certain, his memory is already a blessing.
Jeremy Hockenstein, an OLAM individual member, is CEO and Co-Founder of DDD: Changing How the World Works.