Book review: ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains,’ by Tracy Kidder
January 17, 2015
Long known as one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti has braved its share of misfortune and disaster. Well-meaning celebrities and dedicated nongovernment organizations have thrown money at the problem for years, but Haitians continue to suffer. The country's most successful advocate, though, may be physician Paul Farmer, who for decades has committed his career to the service of the impoverished nation's people.
Journalist Tracy Kidder shines a well deserved spotlight on the dedicated doctor in his 2003 book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains." Though written more than 10 years ago, Kidder's account of Farmer's remarkable journey among the poorest of the poor in Haiti is still extremely relevant today.
The earthquake that devastated the island in 2010 reversed most of the progress that had been made, and the country's recovery has been slow.
Also, Farmer's star has subsequently reached the stratosphere, largely because of his unparalleled commitment to a seemingly impossible battle. He is recognized as one of the preeminent advocates for those most in need around the world, and as Kidder learned during his time with Farmer, that passion for the poor comes out of a very personal place.
Farmer grew up fairly poor himself, living for a time in a trailer park and on a boat. He has a high tolerance for deplorable living conditions and a no-frills lifestyle. Unlike many who travel to Haiti with the best intentions to help, Farmer has set down roots in the island nation, and it is the place where he feels most at home.
Farmer, Kidder insists, is one of those individuals who has a knack for motivating a community. He does not delegate; he leads. Farmer quickly saw that Haiti's problems were not going to be solved by in-and-out doctors, foreigners who came and went as their funding sources ebbed and flowed. A MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" awarded to Framer in 1993 was used to support his steadily built charity, Partners in Health, which was the cornerstone of his ambitious program that advocated heavy involvement in the community, and not just in direct health care.
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Farmer saw the bigger framework of the problems plaguing Haiti — inadequate water systems, women's literacy, childhood education are some examples — as interconnected and impacting the health of the community. He set about building "Zanmi LaSante," an impressive medical oasis deep in the countryside, well away from Port-Au-Prince, where most of the foreign aid is concentrated. Though the official policy is that everyone has to pay for treatment — the equivalent of 80 cents, a fortune for many — most don't, a position that Farmer subversively promotes, feeling no one should be turned away.
As Kidder spent more time with Farmer, observing him with his patients, he, too, fell under the charismatic doctor's sway, marveling at his capacity for sympathy and caring in the shadow of overwhelming poverty and hardship. He walks for hours to tend those most in need, touching his patients, looking into their eyes as he listens to their complaints. He speaks Creole like a native and does not scoff at their Voodoo beliefs, the official religion of the island nation. In essence, he is loved — even revered.
Dokté Paul is known and respected across the country, and now around the world, as a voice for those who can't speak. Specializing in infectious diseases, Farmer has become an outspoken advocate for those suffering from tuberculosis and AIDS. With little sympathy for protocol or the status quo, Farmer has always believed that a single person can make an impact. "Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed, they are the only ones who have."
Even now, as his expertise is sought out all around the world, Farmer has never lost sight of the core of his ideals, the one-on-one time with the poorest of the poor and the neediest of the needy. In Farmer's mind, humanity must aim for a heightened level of empathy, something he strives for every day. There are philanthropic people who talk the talk, and there are those who put forward money — often vast quantities of it — and Farmer acknowledges that these people are vital. Then, there are those who walk the walk or, in Farmer's case, who run the walk.
At the core of Farmer's longevity and success is his ability to see the problem for its stark reality. Instead of always expecting to win — a trait he says is common to the American ideal — Farmer advocates that a better approach when dealing with situations like Haiti is to be prepared for what he calls the "long defeat," an acceptance that we will lose but we will do it anyway, if in the process we will relieve someone's suffering.
The world is lucky to have him.
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