An ongoing dialogue on HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases,
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:
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?