A Lesson in Humanity

Yesterday amidst the sideways rain and claustrophobic bus delays, something cool happened. The day itself was on a downward spiral; It began with a dull drizzle, continued with a sea of out-of-service buses, and almost ended with a horribly broken umbrella. However, at 7:30 pm in the College Ave Gym as I sat down in one of the few seats left open, I let myself smile for the first time all day. I was about to hear one of my greatest role models speak in a matter of minutes: Dr. (Dr.) Paul Farmer.

Dr. Farmer in action

Dr. Farmer in action

For those of you who don’t know about this acclaimed author/medical anthropologist /infectious disease specialist/physician, he’s a very cool person. His upbringing was not one shared by many Harvard MD/PhD graduates. With free-spirited parents, Farmer spent most his childhood in Birmingham, AL, where home was a converted school-bus that served as the family’s mobile residence. During his high school years, the Farmer family relocated to a remade boat moored in the coastal, Floridian bayou, in a town where young Paul Farmer excelled as a student. After winning an esteemed scholarship to Duke University, Dr. Farmer flew for the first time in an airplane to an institution that would introduce him to the wonderful field of medical anthropology. And that’s just the beginning of his adventure.

But I’m not here to write about his numerous medical achievements or international accolades. I’m here to share how one man humbly spoke in front of a room of 200 people on what it meant to reconnect with our humanity. After a few jokes and light-hearted comments, Dr. Farmer began to recount his experience in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak and how this wasn’t a new, “exotic” epidemic for the citizens there; it was just another reflection of a neglected, struggling society. The medical facilities there lacked doctors, safe spaces, and basic sterile equipment, such as gloves. Women were receiving prenatal care from nurses using infected needles. There were no research facilities to distinguish the diarrhea, fever, and vomiting symptoms of dengue, malaria, west nile virus, and Ebola.

Dr. Farmer quickly pointed out that many would attribute this as a symptom of “culture.” But they wouldn’t mention the effects of a culture of European colonialism in the region nor the aftermath of a culture of blood diamonds, in which a majority of consumers were the middle class West. Instead, the blame fell on the victim’s own, “uncivilized” culture of consuming bushmeat and having poor hygienic practices. It turned into a cycle of blame, instead of a practice of empathy and understanding.

Additionally, this perilous system of health existed in Sierra Leone long before the Ebola outbreak, and in many parts of the world, it remains in the same state today. Dr. Farmer emphasized that part of the neglected health care of Sierra Leone and many other Western African regions was this mentality of cost-effectiveness. Treating diseases such as Ebola and HIV just weren’t “cost-effective,” until they affected us, the developed world. He raised a question that I’ve asked myself so many times:

When did health stop being a right and start being a commodity?

This idea of health as a fundamental human right seems obvious enough, and yet so many health professionals are hesitant to use this language because it goes against their cost-effective model of healthcare delivery. Dr. Farmer’s experience in Haiti and in Sierra Leone showed the dangers of this mentality and how it degraded an entire population of people into variable in an equation.

By recounting the brilliance and selflessness of the medical workers in Sierra Leone and presenting them as personal friends and colleagues, Dr. Farmer invited humanity back into discussion. He shared his personal experiences with us because in the end, they were our experiences too. They were tales of human dignity, devastating loss, and the elevating feeling of hope and progress. These are things not just found in the life of a physician or a medical anthropologist, but experiences we all connect with in the story of our lives.

So thank you again Dr. Paul Farmer for sharing with us a lesson in humanity.

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