Writing about the accomplishments of an extraordinary and selfless doctor shouldn’t be too difficult for many authors. However, as Tracy Kidder revealed to the Wooster campus this week, writing about Dr. Paul Farmer was a little intimidating for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Kidder is the author of ìMountains Beyond Mountains.” As part of what has now become a tradition, the book was selected as required reading for this yearís incoming first-year class.
Many first-years were required to write essay responses to the book as part of their First-Year Seminar. This past Wednesday, Kidder gave a lecture in McGaw Chapel to an audience of faculty, students and community members that nearly filled the entire auditorium. Kidder’s lecture opened the 2009 Wooster Forum series.
ìMountains Beyond Mountains” gives a perspective into two global pandemics ó tuberculosis and AIDS. This perspective is given through the eyes of Farmer, an accomplished doctor, Harvard professor, infectious-disease specialist and anthropologist. Kidder reveals that Farmerís goal is to treat infectious diseases and bring medicine to those individuals in poor and developing countries.
Kidder opened the lecture by sharing what gave Farmer his drive. Kidder shared a conversation he’d had with Farmer early on. While Farmer was still in medical school at Duke, he visited Haiti. Farmer explained that there was an American doctor who had worked there for a year. Farmer asked the doctor if it would be difficult to leave. The doctor replied, ìNo, I’m going home.”
Farmerís conversation as a young medical student shaped the trajectory of his medical career. Farmer believed it wasn’t enough to simply say, ìWeíre American.” More importantly, Farmer believed we should look at one another as human beings, not simply Americans.
Farmer later founded his own hospitals in Haiti that specialized in treating tuberculosis and AIDS patients. Farmerís goal subsequently became to bring medicine to those who needed it most. Farmer has founded his own public charity, Partners in Health, to do exactly this. Farmerís entire career has been driven by a need to help those in need. Farmer’s travels have taken him to Haiti, Peru, Cuba and Russia.
Kidder claimed that while Farmer is a decorated doctor and professor, his drive has caused him to be a tireless worker. ìHis life looks hard to me,” said Kidder.
ìHe has fancy credentials, heís written four books, but he spends more time in Haiti, Rwanda and coach class airplanes than he does in Boston with his family.”
Kidder said that what made Farmerís career even more remarkable was that he wasnít one of those workaholics who loved to be miserable. ìHeís not one of those dour people. He doesnít like all the sacrifices he has to make, but he makes them,” he said.
Kidder said that all of Farmer’s qualities created a problem for him while he was writing the book. He saw Farmer as almost too perfect and self-sacrificing. ìI knew that if I followed this guy around, Iíd feel intimidated,” he revealed.
Kidder also spoke on the ìproblem of goodness,” a theme which he focused on in the book. One the one hand, Kidder said that ìit almost seemed like I was writing a Hallmark card.”
However, Kidder said there was a bigger problem. Covering a man as selfless and altruistic as Farmer makes normal readers feel uncomfortable and guilty.
ìThe problem of goodness isnít just a literary problem. It makes us think about things weíd rather not think about,” he said.
Kidder admitted that in writing the book, he himself had to wrestle with many issues that he would rather not think about. Traveling the third world with Farmer, Kidder saw abject poverty first-hand. Kidder confessed that it was hard to travel with Farmer and not feel a tinge of guilt that we’re not doing enough. ìItís not the notion that we in the wealthy countries have directly created the worldís poverty. Itís that our wealth and luxuries have come [to some point at their expense].”
While Farmerís story is both uplifting and sobering at the same time, Kidder did claim that there is an overriding message to take away from Farmerís works. ìOne point from Farmerís story is the example he’s set. One small group can, in fact, change the world.”