Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a 2003 novel by Tracy Kidder about Dr. Paul Farmer, a truly remarkable doctor, Harvard professor, humanist, anthropologist, and just all around real life saint of a person. My friend Zena gave me Mountains Beyond Mountains when I visited her and my friend Rick last November (Lorraine, their daughter, had given her this book originally) and just the past couple of weeks it's come up in my reading queue. Attending a presentation by author, Tracy Kidder, about Mountains Beyond Mountains and his follow up novel (also a biography), Strength In What Remains (which was released last year), was one of the highlights of last year's Miami International Book Festival for me.

In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder does provide some background on Dr. Paul Farmer's early life growing up in a large, poor family that moved around a lot (amongst the places they lived was in Alabama and around the Gulf of Mexico region), but the focus of Mountain Beyond Mountains, is on Paul Farmer's early decision to seek the cure for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS and help people in extremely impoverished countries who are especially vulnerable to these diseases.

Although Dr. Paul Farmer lives in the United States, most of his time is spent in Haiti. He considers Haiti his home base, where he's administered medical help to the people there since the 1990's, specializing in people that have TB or AIDS. Farmer has written books on infectious diseases as well as lecturing around the world on this subject especially how they pertain to poor countries, but while Dr. Farmer knows that this lecturing around the world is important for increasing awareness and for the financial support these countries need, he is most "at home / happy" when he's directly providing medical help to people who otherwise wouldn't receive any medical attention. Tracy Kidder accompanied Dr. Farmer on many of his returns to Haiti, Peru, Russia, and elsewhere and thus bore witness to the lengths Farmer had to undergo to provide the medical services he provided. As Kidder recounts, Paul Farmer undertakes the seemingly tireless medical services he performs because of the great need that exists, not for monetary gains or personal fame. The following are Paul Farmers words:

"I think of myself as more of a physician than as an American. Americans are lazy democrats...the rich can always call themselves democratic, but the sick people are not among the rich. Look I'm very proud to be an American. I have many opportunities because I'm an American. I can travel freely throughout the world, I can start projects, but that's called privilege, not democracy."

People who read the above words spoken by Dr. Paul Farmer who haven't Mountains Beyond Mountains, may assume that Farmer is an ingrate, but nothing could be farther from the truth as Paul Farmer just has no patience for the bureaucracy he was often confronted with just to provide the medical services that he did and the rampant inaction that exists in people who have the means to make actions happen.

I get overwhelmed fairly easily, especially when I think about dire living conditions in a country like Haiti (conditions of which were already really bad even before January's horrible earthquakes) so I definitely understand people's inclination to tune out when they hear about these calamities that are happening around the world and feel like there's nothing they can do (compounded by the reality that many people here in the U.S. are themselves experiencing hardships). I think that a book like Tracy Kidder's Mountain Beyond Mountains and the existence of a person such as Dr. Paul Farmer serves as a vivid illustration of not only how really really bad things are in some parts of the world, but also as a template of how one person can be instrumental in changes happening. Looking at the big picture and all its variables can lead to, as Kidder writes, "...what seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large...theory often outruns practice", but as Jim Kim (a colleague of Dr. Farmer) says: "If you focus on individual patients, you can't get sloppy."

Fairly early on when Paul Farmer first started going to Haiti, he got the attention of Thomas White, who through his belief in what Farmer was doing, was the initial financial start up of Partners In Health, a Boston based non-profit health organization dedicated to providing a "preferential option for the poor." The work that Partners In Health do through their clinics around the world is explored in Mountains Beyond Mountains, but you can also visit their website for more information at:

Anyone who would like to read the copy of Mountains Beyond Mountains that I just got done reading just has to stop by my store (Alternate Reality Comics, here in Las Vegas, of course) and I'll pass it on as long as it gets read and passed on to others who would read it (as it has been passed on to me and to Zena before me). Those great U.S. institutions called libraries will have this book on their shelves also (unless it's checked out).

1 comment:

Zena Tucker said...

Thank you for blogging about this book. It reminded me of how much I too loved the book. Dr Farmer is inspiring to me.