Three Lessons I Learned from Dr. Paul Farmer

By Sara Aghajanian, MPH

March 7, 2022

March 7, 2022 – When I heard that Dr. Paul Farmer had passed away, it hit me hard. I didn’t know Dr. Farmer personally, but like many others, his work led me to pursue a career in public health. I was in college when I first read Mountains Beyond Mountains written by Tracy Kidder, which profiled his early work starting Partners in Health and working in Haiti and beyond. I was amazed at how one man and a group of passionate colleagues could impact so many people not just in local communities, but also a generation of public health advocates. This was one of the reasons I decided to pursue an MPH. Here are a few lessons from Dr. Farmer and his work that I’ve taken with me along the way.

Let the Community Lead

Dr. Farmer and his team were instrumental in bringing tuberculosis under control in Haiti by training community health workers and creating a system of community health clinics to ensure that more people had access to quality health care. As communicators and public health advocates, we need to remember that we are not the experts in the communities we serve. Community members are. Our efforts should focus on empowering community members with the resources and tools to create change locally. When designing programs, it is our responsibility to ensure that we first listen to the community.

Don’t Be Afraid to Push Boundaries

Dr. Farmer was relentless. Michelle Karshan, VP of a nonprofit prison health care system in Haiti who worked closely with him said, “He didn’t think anybody was too poor or too illiterate to be entitled to receive health care.” She shared that when WHO had resistance to giving HIV medication to people who were illiterate in Haiti because they were concerned that they didn’t know when or how to take it, Dr. Farmer set up his own program and created a chart that relied on the sun’s position. Getting things done may sometimes mean not to take no for an answer.

Work with Compassion

Dr. Farmer was known to treat everyone he met with kindness, empathy, and compassion. Whether it was providing community healthcare in rural Haiti, treating prisoners in Russia for drug-resistant tuberculosis, or teaching medical students in Rwanda. Sharing compassion with team members is an important aspect of work satisfaction and motivation. Our work in public health should always put people at the center. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to one of the worst mental health crises the world has ever seen. Let’s remember to give each other grace.

I know I will carry these lessons and more with me as I continue my career. May Dr. Farmer’s legacy remind us to continue the fight to ensure everyone, everywhere can have access to quality healthcare no matter their background or financial status.