Honoring the Life of Dr. Paul Farmer (1959-2022) - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Honoring the Life of Dr. Paul Farmer (1959-2022)

March 30, 2022

Written by Ange Uwimana, 2021-2022 Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellow

On February 21 at 8:26 a.m., I received some of the worst news of my life. A friend of mine from Rwanda sent me a text via WhatsApp saying: “Sorry for your loss, just heard about Paul Farmer’s passing.” I was sitting in the Edelstone Lounge of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine while studying for the STEP 1 USMLE exam, the first licensing exam that every medical student in the United States must take. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, my friend and almost everyone who is close to me know how important Dr. Paul Farmer was in my academic journey. In a matter of few minutes, the news circulated via social media, and people from all over the world started sharing moments they had with Dr. Paul Farmer.

First, I would like to offer my deepest condolences to Dr. Farmer’s family, friends, mentees, and patients. I also would like to thank Dr. Farmer’s family for sharing him with the world.

Dr. Paul Farmer has been described by many as a great inspiration who revolutionized the field of Global Health in the last 30 years. Many have cited how Dr. Farmer inspired them to pursue careers in public health, global health, and medicine with a focus on social justice. For me, Dr. Farmer was not only an inspiration but a mentor in my medical school journey.

Before coming to the United States for college, I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s 2004 biography about Paul Farmer’s journey in addressing global health inequality, providing care for the poor, and co-founding the nonprofit Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit health organization with a presence in Rwanda. Dr. Farmer became my hero.

In the Fall of 2013, I matriculated at Marist College in New York. Through a friend at Harvard, I was able to meet Dr. Farmer during his class office hours and thank him for making a difference in Rwanda through PIH. That day was one of the highlights of my life. Not only was he very nice to a first-year student interested in medicine, but he also encouraged me that I could have a bright future career and gave me a copy of his book, To Repair the World, which he inscribed. From that moment, I wanted to pursue a career in Global Health.

While in Boston, I connected with the PIH office, which led to an internship with PIH Rwanda in the summer of 2014, where I worked on the Health Information System Team on the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) implementation project and assisted on an HIV study that was subsequently published. I saw Dr. Farmer again during that summer.

I reconnected with Dr. Farmer in 2018 when I was a post-baccalaureate scholar at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge. I was able to attend Farmer’s “Case Studies in Global Health” course at Harvard as a visiting student. I got to know more Dr. Farmer’s administration team and learned more about his work.

Dr. Farmer kindly wrote letters of recommendation for my applications to medical schools. When I sent him a thank you note for his support, he responded, “You are my retirement plan.” I will always treasure that email.

I matriculated at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine (UIC) in the Fall of 2020. Dr. Farmer’s example inspired me to pursue a Global Medicine (GMED) scholarly concentration, studying hepatocellular carcinoma in Rwanda in addition to the core medical curriculum at UIC. It is also what guided me to join the 2021-2022 Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellowship. My project aims to prevent hypertension by teaching simple and healthy Mediterranean-based vegetable recipes. The classes are hosted by Deborah’s Place, a supportive housing program for women facing chronic homelessness in East Garfield Park and Old Town.

It is hard to find the right words that do justice to the person Dr. Farmer was and the work he did. He showed us what decency can look like in today’s world, and he set expectations so high.

I was grateful to return to Boston for the PIH memorial service and the Harvard Medical School candlelight ceremony on March 4. These celebrations of Dr. Farmer’s life and work made me believe that I am one of Dr. Farmer’s many plants. I look forward to growing and bearing fruit for global health, advocacy for the poor, and social justice.

With sincere sympathy,

Ange Uwimana
Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellow, 2021-2022
Medical Student, UIC College of Medicine Class of 2024