Farmer and Himes Discuss Friendship, Health Care

On Tuesday evening, theology professor Rev. Ken Himes had a discussion with Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health and current chair of the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard University, at an event called “Accompaniment in Practice: a Conversation with Paul Farmer.” Organized by Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, the event highlighted Farmer’s career in international health and his quest to provide universal health care to underprivileged people.

Partners in Health, founded by Farmer and college friend Todd McCormack in 1987, is an international non-profit organization that has provided healthcare services to underdeveloped countries around the world. Farmer revealed that while he has always had aspirations to become a doctor, he was unsure of how he wanted his future to look when he was beginning his medical studies. He was inspired to incite change after going on multiple services trip to rural Haiti while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Duke University.

“I knew I had wanted to go into medicine, [but] I had no idea why—Haiti made me know why,” Farmer said.

During one of his first trips to Haiti, he witnessed a woman die during childbirth. This experience, along with others during his trips, prompted him to take action. He decided to raise money for a blood bank in an attempt to provide aid to Haitians in need. Farmer called upon his well-established friends and family to donate to the cause, and it got him thinking.

“What would it look like if [there was] a group of people in the United States and Haiti … address[ing] healthcare problems of people facing both poverty and disease?” he said.

At age 23, Farmer was beginning to grasp the potential influence he could have over equalizing the field of healthcare.

Himes later prompted Farmer to discuss the role of partnership and friendship in his work, since these topics were the guiding themes of the C21 center this semester. He first declared that Partners in Health was born out of friendship, referencing McCormack’s involvement in the group.

The pair became inspired to promote change in the world of health care. Farmer stressed that the foundation’s beginnings revolved around friendship rather than a “strategic business plan.”

“We wanted [Partners in Health] to look different from standard aid and development work and other mission groups,” he said.

He noted that while these international aid organizations perform very rewarding work, he and McCormack had a vision for solidarity to be at the heart of Partners in Health’s mission.

“The biggest threat to accompaniment and friendship is inequality,” Farmer said.

He explained the difficulty he experienced in forming deep relationships and friendships with the people he was trying to help, noting the “towering divide between a young American … who is going back and forth between Harvard and Haiti, a place where there is every imaginable thing that you might need, and then no electricity, no food, no water.”

Farmer stated that he has now learned that real friendships can be formed across such great divides—to form these meaningful and egalitarian friendships, he had to first understand that their experiences were not the same as his and that he had to listen to the narratives of the individuals who he was working with.

At the end of the discussion, Himes asked Farmer to extend advice to the young people in the audience who want to make a difference in the world—the people that want to be like him in 25 years. Farmer humbly encouraged the audience members not to aspire to be him, but rather to “find [their] own path toward addressing the disparities that are so abundant” in local communities.

“To succeed in this work requires only that you persevere—isn’t that good news?” he said.

Farmer also related his younger self to the students in the audience, explaining that they are in the same place that he was years ago. At the time, he was introduced to worldly issues, which he experiences out in the field to this day. Ultimately, he hoped to stress that students make a change by connecting with others on an interpersonal level, and establishing relationships with people who share similar goals.

“Friendship is critical—if you want to be partners with people living in poverty you have to figure out how to be friends across these divides,” he said.

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Photo Editor