Dr. Paul Farmer, who died unexpectedly on Feb. 21 at the age of 62 in Rwanda, was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. As co-founder of the global health and social-justice organization Partners in Health, Paul spent more than 30 years fundamentally changing the way health care is delivered in the most impoverished places on earth.
Along the way, his fine mind, big heart, and relentless, infectious drive to do good—and have a good time doing it—inspired countless others to follow his example.
Paul opened the first clinic in Cange in Haiti with his classmates while still at Harvard Medical School. The team not only treated local patients but also provided training for community health workers. He returned to Haiti to practice medicine for three months per year after graduating.
There was no hot water and the home was not as fancy as his converted bus, which he had grew up with five of his brothers and sisters in Florida.
Within a few years, the clinic’s work gained worldwide notice for bringing tuberculosis under control in the area, at about 1% the per-patient cost in the U.S. Paul and his colleagues then achieved similarly impressive results against HIV/AIDS. Partners in Health has 16 facilities in Haiti today, with a teaching hospital and nearly 7,000 employees. They also operate in 11 other countries, including Rwanda, where they partnered with the government to rebuild the nation’s health system, which had been destroyed during the genocide. The facilities are used by millions every year. Most of these people have a daily income of less than $1.
My family is profoundly grateful to have long benefited from Paul’s many gifts, going back to the time Chelsea read his work at Stanford, reached out to him, and gained his mentorship and friendship. I’m honored to have worked closely with him in Rwanda through the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and in Haiti, first in bringing treatment to HIV/AIDS patients, and then after the 2010 earthquake when we led the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Through his thorough evaluation of all problems and his conviction that even the most difficult of situations, even those with dysfunctional politics or violence, there was always a solution, I have watched him improve everything.
Paul showed genuine kindness and compassion to all he encountered. Every day was a chance to learn and teach. He was a joy to be with. Also, he was a great husband, dad, son, brother and mentor. One example of this friendship is his constant kindness and support to Chelsea while she was building her career in public healthcare.
Being his friend was an act of grace. His anger at the inequalities in healthcare brought him to his strong books. However, when it came to action, he wanted to transform, not condemn. His only madness was when others took credit for other people’s actions. He believed in sharing credit, and inspiring and empowering others.
Paul’s passing is an immense loss to the world, and heartbreaking to the family, friends, and colleagues who loved him. We still hear his voice. All our lives are passing, but the purpose of living endures: to lift others and empower them to live and work just as he did—with love, gratitude, and joy.