Staff Book Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains; The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World

When choosing a book to read for this spring, I narrowed in on Mountains Beyond Mountains due to my previous interest in the work of Dr. Paul Farmer from my time as an undergraduate studying Anthropology. I greatly admired Dr. Farmer’s approach to global public health in which he also studied Anthropology, taking into considerations the cultural traditions, histories, and practices of the communities he works with to best understand their state of healthcare. Since beginning this book, I have learned so much more about the life of Dr. Farmer, the work of his co-founded organization Partners in Health, all of which is all the more meaningful since the shocking news of Dr. Farmer’s passing this spring.

I would recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains to anyone, but I think there is certainly an added importance for this book for those who plan on pursuing medicine as a career. This book, and the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, emphasize so many important and vital lessons to be learned in a world that can often prioritize profit over that of an individual’s wellbeing. Farmer at one point in the book, while explaining his motivations in pursuing such an arduous path in medicine explains, “If you’re making sacrifices unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence”(Kidder, p. 24). Farmer continues, “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that because you should feel ambivalent” (Kidder p.24). Farmer and Kidder’s conversations often turn towards a more philosophical idea of how to understand places like Cange, a village in Haiti that is the location of the Partner’s in Health hospital that Farmer helped create. Dr. Farmer fought fiercely for his patients in Haiti and the establishment of a hospital that could provide care for those in a way that was successful and longstanding.

Dr. Farmer’s legacy is something that is as pertinent today, if not more, than it was when he first began his journey in healthcare. In the afterword of the book, Tracy Kidder reflects on the time spent gathering the story of Paul Farmer, and Partners in Health. Kidder writes of Ophelia Dahl, a co-founder and current chair of the Board of Directors of Partners in Health, writing that Dahl once told him, “Haiti burns itself into your brain.” (Kidder, p. 303). Kidder continues to note, “Twenty-five years have passed since she (Dahl) first went to Haiti, but she vividly remembers standing at a window overlooking La Saline, one of the several enormous slums that still comprise a large part of Haiti’s Capital city; a slum like a city itself…Ophelia was only eighteen.” (Kidder, p.303). Kidder continues, “She felt assailed by hopelessness at the sight. She said to Paul Farmer, who was all of twenty-two, that she didn’t see how they could do anything meaningful about the misery of a place like La Saline… She recalls that Farmer put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and said “Let’s see what we can do in this one little place” (Kidder, p. 304).

by Kelley Fitzgerald