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Paul Farmer talks global health

A man who won “every humanitarian award possible” according to Dean Nelson, visited campus on April 9 to talk about global health equity.

Wednesday at 7:30 pm, Brown Chapel people were ready to engage in a conversation with medical anthropologist Paul Farmer who was interviewed by Dean Nelson, a journalism professor at PLNU. Farmer rarely speaks at events, but he flew directly from Siberia to discuss global healthcare systems with the San Diego community. Farmer is known worldwide for his multitude of accomplishments.

Currently, Farmer lives in Boston as a professor at Harvard Medical School, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an author of a series of books about global health problems. Students and faculty from Point Loma, students from other universities, and other members of San Diego community attended the event.

“Farmer’s presence on our campus raises our profile in the community,” says Dr. Robert Gailey, Director of the Center for International development and business professor, “but, more importantly, helps keep what is important and central to who we are as a community in front of us at a high level.”

Farmer’s humble beginnings growing up with a large family in a tent, on a boat, and in a bus cultivated a unique passion for working with others in poverty. He began his career by studying medical anthropology at Duke University and then moved on to Harvard Medical School.

His first time in Haiti, at 23 years old, he had no medical skills. In his words, he was just another mouth to feed. However, at that time, he saw a need for global health equity, and decided to do what he could to develop and mend healthcare systems in both Haiti and Rwanda.

Farmer co-founded Partners in Health, a worldwide healthcare organization that provides first world healthcare to the world’s poorest people, as defined by Farmer. This organization was started in Cange, Haiti but since has expanded internationally. Essentially, Partners in Health “helps patients living in poverty to obtain effective drugs to treat tuberculosis and AIDS”, according to This organization has been extremely effective in reducing health related deaths in Haiti and Rwanda.

“The fact that he is both a medical doctor and anthropologist means he is always looking at how health care is impacting people, particularly the most marginalized people”, says Dr. Gailey, “PLNU cares about people who are marginalized and who live in poverty.”

The first segment of the evening was a talk given by Farmer in which he shared about his experiences in humanitarian work and activism. He also discussed the significance of accompaniment of the poor versus aid to the poor, which focuses on equality.

“Accompaniment is over when the person being accompanied says it’s over because we are social as a species, we are wired for it,” said Farmer.

Partners in Health was established in order to encourage people to come alongside people struggling in poverty and care for them in some way.

“I specifically enjoyed Dr. Farmer’s advocation for accompanying suffering individuals through their hardships instead of simply ‘aiding’ them – stressing the importance of being present in the moment,” says senior biochemistry major Marcus Anthony

Although at times people may feel the issue of poverty is too overwhelming to take on, this is exactly what motivates Farmer. He said that he focuses on moving forward in the future through progress. Even through the little things he sees progress, like gatherings to talk about justice in healthcare, like the event itself on Wednesday night.

Farmer emphasized that he geared his talk specifically toward university students. His biggest regret so far is not becoming involved in humanitarian efforts and activism earlier. Thus, Farmer was encouraging students to get active and involved.

“I sit in class and hear about things like global health equity and poverty alleviation, but it’s not often that I get the opportunity to listen to someone who lives it,” says junior international studies major, Megan Christensen, “Paul Farmer has spent a huge part of his life working in Haiti and Rwanda, and I simply wanted to hear some wisdom from someone who actually has practical knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.”

The second segment of the evening, Farmer explained how he lives out liberation theology, which is essentially caring for the poor as it says in the gospel. He believes that poverty is both soluble and shrinkable, and through the modern knowledge and experience that we didn’t have 50 years ago, we can attack problems.

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can get clean water to Haiti,” Farmer said, “we need to be present to people facing poverty.”

Throughout the evening, he reiterated that it is not up to one individual to do it, but “it is that it has to be done.” He emphasized the value of getting involved once problems are identified.

“We are called to walk alongside all peoples and not wall ourselves off to the uncomfortable, such as poverty and despair,” says senior biology major Michal Hoenecke, “Dr. Farmer’s wisely-spoken words will carry me throughout my future career as a physician and life as a whole.”