Doctor teaches a divinity school about corporal works of mercy
Paul Farmer's organization does amazing work in Haiti.
According to Tracy Kidder's biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Farmer's interest in Haiti was inspired by a Belgian nun, Sr. Julianna DeWolf, who was working with the United Farm Workers not far from the Duke campus.
"Through Sister Juliana, he came to know many farm workers, including a number of Haitian migrants," Kidder writes. "Farmer was fascinated by their stories and began to learn everything he could about Haiti, studying the Creole language, interviewing migrant workers and reading scores of books about the island nation's tragic history."
Farmer took these lessons with him as a first-year medical student in Haiti.
"I never understood why it was important to think about the corporal works of mercy until I went to Haiti," he told the crowd.
But it was a lack of mercy that first motivated Farmer. In his first assignment in Haiti, he witnessed poor people paying for inadequate care and ineffective medicines.
"It was a total nightmare," Farmer said. "I didn't even know how to talk about it."
In 1983, Farmer traveled to another part of Haiti called Cange, where the construction of a dam had forced residents to settle on a barren hillside. The site was notorious for its high levels of illness and death. It became one of Farmer's greatest teachers.
"The best place you could ever start to work in public health is in a squatters' settlement of landless peasants," he said.
By 1985, Farmer helped to establish Clinique Bon Sauveur in Cange. What began as a two-room facility developed, room by room, into a full-fledged hospital. The clinic came at a crucial moment. By 1986, AIDS began to emerge in the Haitian slums.
By treating his Haitian patients, Farmer became an expert in drug-resistant tuberculosis. His knowledge led him to the prisons of Siberia, where doctors were overwhelmed with inmates afflicted by TB. "Visit the prisoners" is one of the corporal works of mercy that taught Farmer one of his most important medical lessons.
Farmer noted that his method of learning medicine paralleled the ideas of Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian he befriended while working with the sick in Peru. Gutierrez taught Farmer that learning theology should "lead you into the slums and squatter settlements and prisons and back waters."
..."I learned a lot about the corporal works of mercy in Haiti, but I believe these lessons are applicable in the U.S. In the shadows of the great teaching hospitals like Harvard, you'll find people living in poverty," Farmer said. "You always find that diseases run together with social pathologies. In Haiti, it's hunger; in Russia, its alcoholism; in the U.S., it's homelessness. But in every case, what I see is that we are way too quick to give up on people who are marginalized by poverty."
To read more about the work done in Haiti by Paul Farmer's organization, Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante, go to http://www.pih.org/where/haiti/. And I know I've said so more than once, but if you haven't yet read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, do so.
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