February 22nd, 2022

A Personal Tribute to Dr. Paul Farmer — Who Made Everyone Feel Important

Paul Farmer’s unexpected death this weekend has all of us who knew him reeling. This just should not happen to someone so generous, so important, and so visionary about helping others — especially others who, due to being born in impoverished life circumstances, can’t help themselves.

This is not fair at all. We’re heartbroken.

The tributes will deservedly be pouring in over the next few days about his global impact, so here’s a very personal one. One of Paul’s great talents was making you feel important.

It didn’t diminish the experience one bit that he made everyone feel important — when he was talking to you, looking at you, he had you front and center in that big generous heart of his, and everyone else drifted away. These important people could include the President of the United States, the patient who was the fifth consult of a busy day on the inpatient ID service, the members of the band Arcade Fire, or a person with severe tuberculosis in rural Haiti. All are VIPs to Paul.

Several years ago, I cited this supernatural ability of Paul to make everyone he met feel like they mattered when discussing his skills as a doctor working here in Boston. Didn’t matter whether you were a patient, or a consulting surgeon with a short attention span, or a green medical student, or a hospital transport person. Everyone felt this from Paul, regardless of his skyrocketing fame.

One of these important people was my friends’ daughter, Lily. When she was 12, she read Mountains Beyond Mountains and, like countless others, derived inspiration from Paul’s career.

I told Paul about Lily’s enthusiasm for his work. Immediately he offered to sign a copy of his book Pathologies of Power, and told me to give it to her as a present. He inscribed it “For Lily, for later” (he knew it wouldn’t be easy reading for a 12-year-old), and he included his email address (of course). I told him I’d pay for the book, but he flat-out refused.

After I gave her the book, she dropped by one of our post-graduate courses that featured Paul as a speaker to thank him. More important was that he gave her time to talk about his work, and what she wanted to do with her life. She was truly starstruck, and used the experience to inspire a wonderful speech at her bat mitzvah.

(For those who haven’t heard bar or bat mitzvah speeches, they usually reflect pre-adolescent obsessions that then are jerry-rigged by the rabbi into something more generous or religious. Mine probably had something to do with baseball and model rockets — not health equity.)

Later, I thanked Paul for being so generous with both his book and, especially, his time with Lily. (This guy could be pretty busy, you know.) I told him that she featured his work and their meeting in her bat mitzvah speech, and how inspiring his dedication to helping the poor was to her.

Paul would take no credit (he never did) — but he did email me this:

Please send Lily my congrats on her bat mitzvah. I’ll bet that she’s going to talk about social justice and remaking the world for a long time. We need people like her on this planet.

The story doesn’t end here. Each time I saw Paul over the next few years, in addition to catching me up on family and work and whatever latest crisis he and Partners in Health were tackling, he’d smile and ask:

“How’s Lily?”

He’d be pleased to know that she’s currently lobbying at the state house on behalf of non-profit organizations in Massachusetts. It’s not a stretch to say that Paul’s influence led her to choose a career in public policy.

And no, he’d never forget her name. That’s just Paul for you. We’re all important — even when there’s nothing in it for him.

Not a bad lesson for how to live life, is it?

14 Responses to “A Personal Tribute to Dr. Paul Farmer — Who Made Everyone Feel Important”

  1. Pamela Kissinger says:

    So sorry I never heard of this great man, before he passed away.

  2. Peter David says:

    Confess this made me tear up a bit. What an admirable person. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Annette Corman says:

    He was an extraordinary man and I think you are too. And so is Lily

  4. Joel Gallant says:

    I experienced this quality of Paul’s first-hand 14 years ago. I’d taken a weekend away from work in Uganda to visit Rwanda. I was there to see gorillas, not patients, but I took the opportunity to visit Paul’s hospital. Fortunately he was there, and we had a wonderful conversation over lunch. After we ate, and before my tour of the hospital, he took me completely off guard when he said, “Oh, I’d love for you to autograph your book for me.”

    “My book?” Given who I was talking to, I couldn’t think of a book I’d written.

    He went to his bookshelf and pulled out a copy of “Medical Management of HIV Infection” (often referred to as “the Bartlett Guide”). He’d never met me before, and I was only a lowly coauthor, but he still made the connection. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as embarrassed to autograph a book before…or as honored.

  5. Loretta S says:

    What a lovely tribute to someone I wish I had met.

  6. Caitlin Reed says:

    I was lucky enough to have both Pauls as my ID attendings during my ID elective in my 3rd year of medical school — it’s no surprise that I decided to pursue a career in infectious diseases after that! I was already leaning in that direction after taking Paul Farmer’s course titled ‘Culture, Poverty, and Infectious Disease’ which had an enormous influence over my future direction, and that of many other people who were lucky enough to take that class. I’ve long since forgiven him for losing my term paper on malaria en route to working in a Siberian prison.

    Thank you for highlighting the remarkable power of Paul Farmer’s to make people feel special — his irrepressible force of charisma. I can’t believe he’s gone. I thought he’d live forever — and he will, in the legacy of the many thousands of people he inspired, mentored, and taught.

  7. emilio fumero says:

    Thank you Paul. I certainly feel the same sadness by the lost of this giant. I had the fortune to knew him introduced by my passed friend, another giant, Francisco Marty. I was immediately impressed by his non stop willing to give and to serve. His projects in LATAM particularly his tireless effort against resistant TB was a reflection on how much he drives science and medicine into human benefit. breathtaking. what a great lost. Rest in peace

  8. Laura says:

    I never had the chance to meet him, but since i started to work in HIV he was my model. He gave so much and opened my eyes on injustice and what can be done if we want. Grateful for ever and thinking to all those who were close to him. He will be there for ever.

  9. Karen Chachu says:

    Thank you for writing this. Paul Farmer was such a wonderful person. I experienced this in my junior year at Williams College in MA, when one of the physicians in town encouraged me to invite Dr Farmer to come speak at Williams. His family is from North Adams or somewhere close to Williamstown. He said yes and gave an excellent talk. He also gave me a signed copy of his book “Infections and Inequalities” which I still have and I went to dinner with him and his family after the talk. I wrote a starstruck email to my mom afterwards and I was just looking at it. He was so generous with his time!

  10. Lisa Hirschhorn says:

    Thank you Paul S for sharing-Paul F always said that people like Lily were his retirement plan-but none of us thought that would activate way too early. He had a similar impact on my daughter who raised funds for one of the organizations inspired and empowered by Paul and PIH to push access for ART in the mid 2000’s in their country for her Tikun Olam (Heal the World-one of the terms we all learned to take as a call to action not just a task) and now working to fight disparities as a medical student. This next generation I know will continue to amplify and live Paul’s inspiration even as we all so dearly miss him and mourn for his family and all his friends.

  11. Henry Wu says:

    I was extremely lucky to take a social medicine class Paul taught in med school (along with Jim Yong Kim and Arthur Kleinman), and I ran into him again a couple times later, including my interview day for fellowship at the BWH, when he warmly had the interviewees join the consult team. When you think about all he has done, it is easy to start thinking he is a superhero sort of person who is impossible to emulate. However, whenever I have talked to him he had quite the opposite effect–he had the ability to inspire you to do something amazing in your own way.

  12. Peter Reiss says:

    Thank you for this very touching tribute. We are in such need of people like Paul on this planet. Such a loss that Paul is no longer with us, but his work will persist, including in people such as Lily!

  13. Aparna Miano says:

    Thank you for that story. The other person like this was Ralph Feigin, on of the greatest infectious disease physicians of this century. Also brilliant and so incredibly kind, and he never forgot even a medical student’s name (he also used to do differential diagnoses in alphabetical order). He was so humble and warm, despite his towering intellect. He died far too young also. What amazing humans and what an honor to have known people like this.

    I was thinking of quitting my job till I read this. My patients need me.

  14. Mimi Breed says:

    Paul Farmer was a singularity.

    I wonder whether a more inspiring human being has ever lived. After I read “Mountains Beyond Mountains” I bought 20 copies and gave them to family and friends as Christmas gifts.

    Just knowing Paul was in the world made everything better, and made me remember that, with enough will, the impossible may be achievable. In what he started, he will live on, of course, but I feel his death as a very personal loss.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.