Haiti's mountains

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jan. 21, 2010

Dear Julie,

Beyond mountains there are mountains, says a Haitian proverb that has many meanings in a country where extreme poverty has become a way of life. It can mean opportunities are limitless. In mountainous Haiti it also can mean that overcoming one obstacle just gives you a better view of the next one to be taken on. In Haiti, to believe both is possible.

So says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder, who seven years ago in the book "Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer" described one man's willingness to take on international public health institutions, drug companies and intransigent and corrupt governments to give health care to people who are poor. He didn't do it alone. An 18-year-old woman named Ophelia Dahl believed in Farmer and his work and helped him found Partners in Health, the organization she now runs. A benefactor named Tom White, who made millions in the construction industry, poured most of them into the mission to make quality health care available to anyone who needs it. Harvard Medical School and Boston hospitals became partners.

The PIH mission is a revolutionary one, both medical and moral: "When a person in Peru, or Siberia, or rural Haiti falls ill, PIH uses all of the means at our disposal to make them well -- from pressuring drug manufacturers, to lobbying policymakers, to providing medical care and social services," PIH says in its vision statement. "Whatever it takes. Just as we would do if a member of our own family -- or we ourselves -- were ill."

This is an ideal being pursued and practiced in some of the world's most destitute countries, an ideal we Americans have not yet embraced ourselves.

Farmer is a Harvard-educated physician who as a first-year medical student chose service and living among squalor instead of wealth. Sleeping no more than a few hours a night and climbing dangerous mountain trails to treat anyone who needed it, Farmer started a clinic more than 20 years ago in a rural part of the Haitian plateau where people had better access to Voodoo than to medicines, where AIDs and TB were certain killers. That led to the creation of PIH, a not-for-profit organization that since then has expanded to nine countries and now employs more than 11,000 people.

But its soul and roots are in Haiti. More than 100 PIH doctors and 600 nurses work in Haiti today. When the devastating earthquake struck last week, PIH clinics immediately began treating victims. PIH has been put in charge of the university hospital in Port-au-Prince.

PIH was in Haiti long before the quake and will be there long afterward. Anyone looking for a charity to send money to on behalf of Haitians could find none better. The organization spends 95 cents of every dollar donated on direct services. Tracy Kidder has called PIH "a real antidote to despair."

Kidder has said Paul Farmer impressed Ophelia Dahl, whose father was author Roald Dahl and mother was actress Patricia Neal, as someone who showed the rest of us the value of fighting for what you believe in. Of taking action as an article of faith in humanity. None of us has to sell our houses and move to Haiti. But after getting to know Farmer, Kidder has said he no longer could resign himself to the fact that millions of people in the world are still dying from treatable diseases. "There's always something one can do."

In Port-au-Prince, the mountains have come crashing down, revealing more mountains.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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