Thursday, January 11, 2007

Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Mountains Beyond Mountains is about Dr. Paul Farmer, a co-founder of Partners in Health (PIH). PIH is an organization that provides health care for the poorest in our world. The organization is based on the values of Dr. Farmer, who says "I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can't buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent."

Dr. Farmer is a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist who operates in the realm of the ideal. He is sincerely conflicted about acquiring any financial gain as a doctor because there are sick people, who are poor, who cannot afford his services. So he gives his services away to the poorest of the poor. To people living in Haiti, Cuba, Peru, and Russia. To "farmers" who scratch a meager subsistence off inhospitable land. To prisoners contracting diseases. To people living in shanties.

When we give money to the poor, through church or charities, we give money to organizations like Partners in Health. That money ultimately goes to people who are moved to give their time, their effort, their blood, sweat and tears. And among those good people, those saintly people, Dr. Farmer would be considered an inspiration. Dr. Farmer has built a hospital in Haiti to treat her poor. He renovated the medical world's view for treating resistant tuberculosis in Peru (with the very able work of Dr. Jim Kim, a co-founder of PIH). He has done all this in the most demanding way possible: by personally touching those patients, and being attentive to their care. "If you focus on individual patients," Jim Kim says, "you can't get sloppy."

If Farmer's life is a call to action, then such a call to action would be hard to digest, and the author, Tracy Kidder, often suggests this. "Farmer wasn't put on earth to make anyone feel comfortable, except for those lucky enough to be his patients," Kidder writes. Jim Kim said Dr. Farmer "is a model of what should be done. He's not a model for how it has to be done."

Dr. Farmer admits that his methods are somewhat unappealing. During a long hike with Dr. Farmer to help some patients, Tracy thought the good doctor would say "...if you say seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patents, you're saying that their lives matter less than some others', and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that's wrong with the world."

Living a life for others at this level is hard, and it's often a losing battle. Farmer calls this kind of work "the long defeat", and it's an appropriate description. Serving the sick poor is extremely trying; there are just too many of them. But Dr. Farmer is not without hope: "I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I'm not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don't dislike victory." And winning would be a world filled with health for everybody. That's a world I'd love to be a part of, and Dr. Farmer is going to get us there, one patient at a time.

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