UH Med Now

Remembering Dr. Paul Farmer, with gratitude and aloha

Date: February 22nd, 2022 in Care, Collaboration, Community Outreach, Donors, External News, Faculty, Giving, IN THE NEWS, MD Residents, MINORITY, Rural    Print or PDF

One of the distinguished speakers for the symposium “Humanism, Empathy, Social Justice, and Global Health,” during Humanism Week 2022 at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) was activist, physician, and anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer, who spoke of “Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola in West Africa.” From Rwanda, Farmer appeared via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon as part of our inter-residency Global Health Didactics, with 237 residents and students in attendance. His talk addressed some of the issues found in his final book of the same title. 

As a guest lecturer of the UH Better Tomorrow Speaker Series, Farmer shared with JABSOM’s medical students, resident physicians, faculty, and staff who were among the 400+ participants who listened to Who Lives, Who Dies: Reimagining Global Health and Social Justice, on Thursday, February 17, and a smaller group from JABSOM and the island’s health care community also joined a small reception afterward. It turned out to be his final talk, as Farmer died in his sleep three days later on Sunday evening in Rwanda. He was 62. 

The founder of Partners in Health, Farmer held an MD and a PhD from Harvard University, where he was the Kolokotrones University Professor and the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Farmer maintained a special relationship with Hawai’i from his first visit in 2007 through last week’s virtual conversation. The relationship seeded JABSOM students and faculty with Farmer’s legacy of inspiring global outreach to those less fortunate. 

According to a New York Times article updated today, in 1987 Farmer and some colleagues started Partners in Health in Haiti, which eventually expanded into many other countries, including Rwanda, where Dr. Farmer helped the government restructure the country’s health system, improving health outcomes in areas like infant mortality and the H.I.V. infection rate.

“Dr. Farmer’s messages and mantra of health as a human right, health equity, and social justice helped lay the foundation for shifts in medical student and residency curricular changes, research, and community engagement activities at JABSOM,” said Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & DIO. “Last week, our 1st and 2nd year medical students, residents in Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics-Gynecology, and Psychiatry, faculty, and staff participated in discussions with him — that helped remind all of us why we chose this noble profession. We are deeply saddened by his sudden loss, but are committed to continuing his legacy in our collective work.”

Professor Gregory G. Maskarinec, director, Office of Global Health and International Medicine at JABSOM, and Dr. Seiji Yamada, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, together were responsible for having Paul Farmer speak twice to JABSOM last week. Both said they are deeply saddened by his unexpected death.

Maskarinec said, “We hope that Partners in Health can continue its remarkable work throughout the world, and in solidarity with Paul, we insist that health is a human right, and that gross inequities of health-care delivery must be ended here in Hawaiʻi and throughout the world.” 

Yamada remarked that, “Paul Farmer told us that the destitute poor of this world receive little or no medical care at all. The struggles of such people might be geographically remote from the settings in which most of us practice medicine. However, in an increasingly interconnected world, we are all threatened by war, climate change, and grotesque economic inequalities. It is less and less tenable to say, ‘That’s not my problem.’ Even if we choose not to learn about these people, their suffering goes on.” 

Maskarinec adds: “Paul was the most pono person I knew. His moral clarity and purpose was astounding. He fought tirelessly to bring health and quality health care to the poorest and most disadvantaged of this world, refusing to accept that only the wealthy deserve decent care. His writings remain; I particularly recommend ‘Pathologies of Power,’ and ‘Infections and Inequalities,’ to our JABSOM community.”

Teresa Schiff, MD, from the Office of Medical Education  at JABSOM, responded to the news “…I am in such disbelief that he’s gone. It feels like soon we will awake to  hear that this was just a bad dream and that of course he’s doing fine, continuing the great work that he’s always done.” Schiff continued: “I feel so blessed to have lived in the same world as Paul Farmer. He showed us through his example that there are no boundaries and no limits to caring for one another, that at our core,  we are all brothers and sisters of the same human race, all deserving of an equal opportunity for health.”

By Paula Bender, UH Med Now

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Gregory G. Maskarinec (right), Paul Farmer, and Seiji Yamada on the UH Mānoa campus in 2007.

Related story at UHNews.edu.

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