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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

By Tracy Kidder
Random House, 320 pages, $14.95
The heart of Haiti


As Haitians struggle to recover from Hurricane Jeanne and the violence precipitated by the ousting of their president, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World is mandatory reading for concerned Catholics. Originally published in 2003, the book is now available in paperback.

Mr. Kidder chronicles the story of Dr. Farmer’s free hospital in rural Haiti and his crusade against cost-effective analysts who wrote policies preventing treatment for tuberculosis patients living in the world’s most desolate and therefore disease-susceptible places. Though the book is not explicitly Catholic or religious, Mr. Kidder makes mention of Dr. Farmer’s influences, including liberation theology and “O for the P,” Dr. Farmer’s code phrase for “the preferential option for the poor.” Dr. Farmer also occasionally quotes the Beatitudes and claims that “God is to be found in the struggle for justice.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Mr. Kidder does an exceptional job detailing the harsh reality of life for Haitians today and the history of their plight. Dr. Farmer himself, however, is the real subject of the book, and Mr. Kidder captures every word and action of this larger-than-life figure. The end result is a mesmerizing example to us all of how humans can create change with the right resources and the vision necessary to drive those resources.

Dr. Farmer didn’t always have the right resources. He grew up poor, living in a bus and on a boat, but won a full scholarship to Duke University. While there, he attended a protest vigil after Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, and he started spending time with farm workers, some of whom were Haitian, on North Carolina tobacco farms. Eventually, he made his way to Haiti and decided to devote his life to its people. After completing a joint degree in medicine and anthropology at Harvard, Dr. Farmer found enough financial support to open his hospital, which not only offers free care to patients but trains Haitians to be outreach workers, nurses and doctors.

Dr. Farmer operates like a machine, flying between Boston, where his organization is headquartered, Haiti and Peru, Russia and Cuba, where other projects have sprung up, and he does it all with a hopeful, almost annoying (as Mr. Kidder discovers) attitude. When Dr. Farmer admits, “I’ve never known despair and I don’t think I ever will,” Mr. Kidder comments, “It was as if in seeking out suffering in some of the world’s most desperate locales, he made himself immune to the self-consuming varieties of psychic pain.” Despite such musings, Mr. Kidder by no means provides an idealized portrait of Dr. Farmer, uncovering struggles between the doctor and his coworkers and detailing the difficulty of balancing work with a wife and daughter.

There are times in the story when it seems that there are very few of us who could ever replicate what Dr. Paul Farmer has done for Haiti and times when the problems seem too big, but Mr. Kidder’s closing chapter includes a profound summation of Dr. Farmer’s work: “ … The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

If we take this statement away with us, we have taken the first step toward changing our thinking and ourselves. As Mr. Kidder reminds us, Dr. Farmer was never interested in education alone, “he was after transformation.”

Arlene Helderman holds a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School and works in the department of pastoral care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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