Dr. Paul Farmer leaves a legacy of caring in the treatment of HIV/AIDS
The public health community mourns the death of a visionary and leader in global public health, world-renowned anthropologist and physician, Dr. Paul Farmer. The founder health partners was 62 when he died on Monday in Butaro, Rwanda, at a teaching hospital he founded.
Farmer has helped bring innovative ways to deliver state-of-the-art healthcare to low-income settings in developing countries in the Global South. Besides being a doctor, Farmer also had a doctorate. in anthropology and has written on issues of health, human rights and social inequality. In Haiti, during the height of the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, Farmer delivered antiviral drugs door-to-door, in addition to treating patients at a teaching hospital he helped found, which later called “Zanmi Lasante” (Partners in Health). At a time when many medical professionals believed that poor rural communities could not survive after being infected with the virus, The farmer has earned respect people, from Rwanda to Haiti, by working with local civil society organizations, rather than international development agencies, on models of community health care. He was certainly ahead of his time.
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I met one of Farmer’s colleagues in Haiti when I visited the country in August 2009. Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps is a world-renowned physician and researcher on HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, and the Deputy Director of the Haitian Study Group on Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (GHESKIO), working in Haiti. The peasant organization has collaborated with GHESKIO on health programs in Haiti for decades and continues to do so. I called Deschamps at her home in Port-au-Prince to talk about Farmer’s legacy and her memories of working with him.
Questions and answers have been edited for length, clarity and flow.
Q. Tell me about the first time you met Dr. Farmer.
A. I have been with GHESKIO since the beginning. I graduated (from medical school) in Haiti, then went to the United States for a scholarship (at the National Institutes of Health), then I came back and co-founded GHESKIO with Dr. Paul . Our work is well known internationally and nationally.
I met Paul Farmer in 1984 or 1985. He was a young intern (doctor), a young man. I had been working since 1979/1980 in the fight against HIV. And I met him on the plane to Haiti after a meeting with the NIH (National Institutes of Health in the United States in Boston). He came up to me and said, “I know you, but we haven’t met, I’m Paul Farmer and I’m very interested in hearing more about the work you’re doing in Haiti on HIV/AIDS. .
I was really impressed with his approach. Then, maybe two weeks later I saw someone coming to campus (from GHESKIO in Port-au-Prince) and it was Paul. He wanted to share with me the x-ray of one of the patients he was caring for at Boucan-Carré. I had never heard of this place. It’s a nearby neighborhood Mirebalais where is Zanmi Lasante.
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And he described his work with Fritz Lafontant, who was a Haitian priest working with the community and providing social support and services in the area. He was Paul’s mentor. I was impressed that he came to the GHESKIO clinic in Port-au-Prince just to make sure he didn’t miss the diagnosis; he was a young clinician; he wanted to know more. Surprisingly, his patient’s X-ray was similar to that of a patient with tuberculosis. And at the time, HIV/AIDS was already endemic in Haiti. I told him to put this patient on treatment and that he might be infected with HIV.
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Then he invited me to his clinic in Boucan-Carré. He took me to the clinic on the side of the church and there were already people waiting for him. He only had a few nurses. So many people were waiting for him and he was so humble. And also very smart and very educated.
When Paul believed in something, he went to any lengths to solve the problem.
Q. Tell me about Dr. Farmer’s role in HIV/AIDS care and the work you do at GHESKIO in Haiti.
A. Paul had an impact on my life, my way of thinking. And I have to be honest, Paul was a special doctor. He was hot. He had, from the beginning, seen in the care of patients a global issue. For him, treating is not just about prescribing. For him, the care approached the patient in his global context. And being in a poor country, especially in an isolated place like Boucan-Carré, he was already learning Creole! It impressed me. He wanted to communicate with his patients and he healed poverty, not just disease. It was unique.
Since then, we have been working together on HIV/AIDS and cholera. He was also a visionary and a leader.
Q. How do you feel now that you have learned of his death?
A. I just can’t accept that Paul is dead. He was such a force; I am devastated. It was not planned. For me, he was Haitian. Paul adopted Haiti as his homeland. He deserved the Nobel Prize.
We are very touched by the news. But we think Paul would want us to keep fighting.
Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps is one of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS researchers and Deputy Director of GHESKIO. GHESKIO was founded in 1982 by a consortium of Haitian health professionals investigating a disease later identified as AIDS. Since its inception, GHESKIO has worked closely with the Department of Health and Weill Cornell Medical School on treatment, care and research for patients living with infectious diseases and now cardiovascular disease.
Carli Pierson is a lawyer, former professor of human rights, writer and member of USA TODAY’s Editorial Committee. You can follow her on Twitter: @CarliPiersonEsq