Remembering Paul Farmer

guest column

*This column was originally published in The Statehouse File.*

Jenny & Paul Farmer 2017.jpg
Jenny Labalme and Paul Farmer in 2017. Photo courtesy of Jenny Labalme. 

Dr. Paul Farmer, my beloved college friend, was going to win a Nobel Prize one day. 

Unfortunately, that will not happen. Paul died unexpectedly in his sleep on Monday in Rwanda.

He was just 62.

Paul was someone I never thought of dying. He seemed indestructible.

He had boundless energy, a larger-than-life personality and a resume of global public health accomplishments that no one could replicate.

I met Paul long before he became famous.

Before he co-founded the highly respected medical nonprofit Partners in Health. 

Before he won the MacArthur genius prize in his twenties.

Before U.S. presidents, prominent doctors and smartly dressed donors wanted to rub shoulders with him.

I met Paul when we were insecure college freshmen at Duke University. We were both on a pre-med track, though I strayed and became a journalist.

Paul was my lovable and, at times, goofball friend. He often grabbed my hand and held it in his as we walked around campus. Paul was a toucher. He held hands with close friends long into adulthood.

When he stopped by my dorm room, he wrote silly notes with artfully crafted drawings on my dry-erase board. He relished using liquid paper to “white out” portions of my chemistry lab text. When I opened it, we would howl together at the nonsensical instructions about test tubes and beakers. 

One time, Paul, two other classmates and I dressed up as a molecule on the last day of our organic chemistry class. We even crafted a poem, of sorts, that we read out loud. The professor reveled in our creativity. Each of us had large block letters on our bodies. I had an “O” on my elbow and an “H” on my hand since we were an alcohol molecule … perhaps not surprising given that we were college students.

Since Paul’s death, every news article, tweet and post about him hails his brilliance and visionary worldwide work. All of it is true. He was a medical humanitarian who preached that everyone, regardless of background, deserved quality health care. 

Paul was erudite, accomplished and revered. But he also was down to earth and fun – so much fun -- to be around.

One night while studying for a college chemistry exam, we were so slaphappy with exhaustion that we mashed our faces on a photocopy machine, pressed “start” and then laughed until we cried at the black-and-white closeups of our skin pores.

After another late-night cramming for a test, Paul and I crossed the main campus quad as we were returning to our respective dorms around 2 a.m. At Paul’s instigation, the next thing I knew, we were belting out “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” 

Paul had a surprisingly musical voice. When I last saw Paul, exactly three years ago on the date of his death, he, Todd McCormack (another Duke friend and a co-founder of PIH) sang old favorites from our college days as I drove them back to their hotel. 

When we gathered for a drink before parting, Paul spent as much time talking with our waitress as he did with me and Todd. No one was unimportant or unworthy of Paul’s time.

What saddens me greatly is that Paul didn’t have more time… something every patient he treated could have benefited from. Yet what a legacy he left in the time he had. He authored a dozen books and earned his M.D. and Ph.D. while flying back and forth to Haiti. 

The 2017 documentary film “Bending the Arc” (available on Netflix) captures Paul’s selfless commitment toward healthcare equity and chronicles why he was a giant in public health. 

When I flew to Boston for the premiere of “Bending the Arc,” my seat, with my name on it, was reserved next to Paul’s. And just like old times, he reached for my hand. 

At times, I sensed Paul was uncomfortable in the spotlight. But he never ceased reaching out, often with his hands, to his family, friends, colleagues and most importantly to his patients. It’s no coincidence that the logo of Partners in Health contains several hands. 

I miss those hands right now.

So does the world.

Jenny Labalme is executive director of the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation and a member of the class of 1982.


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