When he was in high school in Florida in 1978, Paul Farmer wrote his senior thesis on why the United States shouldn't have national health care.
Today, Farmer is an internationally known physician who has dedicated his career to the belief that health care is a right.
On Tuesday, Farmer acknowledged his youthful views, for the first time publicly, as he spoke about his life's work to about 800 Charlotte-area high school students.
“For many years, I would never have told anyone that I wrote my honors thesis on something so ridiculous,” he told students from 22 high schools. “Some adults had told me this, and I just bought it.”
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In recent months, these students have been learning about Farmer and Partners in Health, the charity he co-founded in 1987.
It has built hospitals and schools in impoverished countries, such as Haiti and Rwanda, and has helped improve the health of thousands of people with AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Farmer's visit to Charlotte was sponsored by the Echo Foundation and its Voices Against Indifference initiative, which features individuals whose lives show how one person can make a difference for humanity through words, action and moral courage.
He spent the day speaking about global health and social justice, first to the students gathered at South Mecklenburg High School, then to community leaders over lunch and finally at the Echo Foundation's Award Against Indifference dinner honoring the Charlotte law firm of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter.
Early Tuesday, Farmer, 49, slender and energetic, bounded into the South Meck gymnasium to a standing ovation. When students presented him with a red, hooded South Meck sweatshirt, he took off his pin-stripe jacket and wore the more casual attire during the entire two-hour question-and-answer session.
He complimented students on their questions, confessing that he hadn't developed their critical thinking skills when he was in high school. And he kept them laughing by admitting his weakness for People magazine and his aversion to high school gyms. “I was the least athletic person in my family,” he said, adding that one of his five siblings is a professional wrestler. Farmer also conveyed passion for the career he chose after meeting migrant workers from Haiti while he was an undergraduate at Duke University. “I went to Haiti right after Duke,” he said. “It made my life … I grew up in humble circumstances, lived in a trailer park. But it was nothing like what I saw in Haiti.”
Farmer completed medical school and residency at Harvard while spending most of his time taking care of sick people in Haiti's mountainous Central Plateau. His life there is the subject of a 2003 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, called “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.”
“We're trying to break the cycle of poverty and disease,” Farmer said. “If there were less indifference in the world, there would be less suffering.”
The Partners in Health clinic in Haiti pioneered a strategy for treating patients with HIV and TB that relies on community health workers. Villagers are paid to visit the sick at home to make sure they take their medicines properly.
This provides jobs to local people and produces better health outcomes than in some parts of the United States, Farmer said. The clinic in Rwanda even uses electronic health records instead of paper charts, a change that many U.S. doctors and hospitals are still just considering.
Despite years of success at treating AIDS and drug-resistant TB, Farmer said some “experts” still claim that such an approach is not cost-effective or sustainable in impoverished countries.
“We've lasted 25 years,” he said. “The experts have already shown us that they can flub things up.”
Farmer has also clashed with “experts” when it comes to fighting malnutrition with a “ready-to-use therapeutic food” called Plumpy'nut. When Partners in Health built a factory and began making its own peanut butter product, Farmer said he got “cease and desist” letters from the makers of Plumpy'nut.
“It sounds crazy to argue over peanut butter,” he said. “But patenting some things goes a little too far.”
Farmer got laughs again when he referred mockingly to those who would claim that this “new technology” can cure hunger: “It's called feeding people.”
In answer to a question about how students can help, Farmer said they don't have to move to Haiti or Rwanda. They can support social justice wherever they are.
“Everybody has problems,” he said, “but it's important to look at other people's problems too…
“The work that we're doing feels good,” he said. “Fighting indifference feels good.”