Monday, August 15, 2011
Woody Starr, a pony-tailed Chautauqua local and all around character walked up to the stage and interrupted Paul Farmer, “Dr. Farmer, you have some big fans there in the second row.” Woody pointed a finger in our direction and Dr. Farmer looked up, waved and said hello. Nick, Alexis and I attempted to contain our squees of joy and hero-worship—only somewhat successfully.
Paul Farmer, the doctor/medical anthropologist/founder of Partners in Health/global health rock star had flown from his home in Rwanda to give this speech during the Chautauqua summer lecture series. His lecture detailed the Partners in Health model, and described the hospitals being rebuilt in post-quake Haiti. And he (awesomely) answered Nick’s question on Malawi
Q: This is from a group of students from the University of Pittsburgh, Student Leaders in International Medicine. We’ve met with Dr. Joseph in Malawi. Can you comment on your involvement in Malawi and its success? Also, do you need another personal assistant?
A: That’s very nice of you. Thank you guys. As long as it can be indentured labor, but they’re against that at Chautauqua. Dr. Joseph, who’s from Upstate New York, was a student of mine. He’s been working for Partners in Health for 15 years in Peru, in Haiti, in Boston, and then he went to direct PIH’s program in rural Malawi. It’s very much like all of our efforts in rural and urban areas, too. We’re doing three things at once: rebuilding infrastructure (in this case, there was no hospital in this district, as you may know), training local people to do this work and also putting resources into the system. So, that’s what happening in Malawi. The impact of those interventions, which have been fairly modest, again in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Ministry of Health, have been just enormous in terms of maternal mortality. In other words, the health system strengthening approach has led to massive reduction in infant mortality, maternal mortality, juvenile mortality and great outcomes among the patients we’ve been taking care of. So, to me, Malawi is just another conformation that many parts of this model are perhaps distinct from place to place, but most of them are actually general and applicable from the urban United States to the mountains of Lesotho. That’s what I believe the Malawi experience teaches us, too. Thank you for asking.
After the lecture ended, Nick, Alexis and I caught our breath and went to wait in line for the book signing. A fidget-filled hour later, Dr. Farmer arrived and began signing books. As we approached the table, Dr. Farmer greeted us “Oh, and you’re my friends from Pittsburgh.” We did our best to play it cool, since we totally meet public health pioneers all the time.
Dr. Farmer signed our books as we described SLIM, Project Malawi and how much we admire and respect his work and Partners in Health. He was kind, engaged and inspiring all at once. He even stood for a picture with us, despite his bad knee. And as we parted he said, “I love meeting young people, college students. They aren’t cynical. They inspire me.”