In order to appreciate the following, you have to have to be familiar with the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, best told by Pulitzer winning writer Tracy Kidder in his book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”. If you read one book in the next decade that will move you in ways you thought is not possible, give you hope as to what is possible in this increasingly impossible world of ours, or just might enjoy finding out about the life one man who came from growing up in a trailer park to changing the lives of millions for the better, this is the book for you. I know I was astounded to see how one person can take on the challenges poverty, disease, institutional ignorance and byzantine bureaucracy, and create lasting change for millions from the slums of Haiti and Peru, to Russia and Rwanda and places in between. In Haiti alone, the organization he helped start, Partners in Health, now, in addition to having built a 300 bed state of the art hospital, employs more than 6,000 Haitians, becoming the second largest employer in this, the poorest of countries in our hemisphere, next to the government.
After being inspired by his book and his story (which taught me lessons on how to be a better physician to my own patients) I’ve become a financial supporter of his cause and his mission deliver high quality care to those who are most in need and are unable to pay for it. This long preamble sets the stage for how I came to have lunch this past Friday with two remarkable people who have been working alongside Dr. Farmer, who tragically died suddenly at the age of 63 this year of heart disease while carrying on his work at the new medical school he helped establish in Rwanda.
Laure Bottinelli carries herself with a grace and energy that only begins to hint at her long list of impressive achievements despite the fact that she’s only in the middle of her third decade of life. Born and raised in France of a French father and American mother, she’s fluent in four languages, with expertise in water conservation and sanitation, has spent almost half her life working in international NGO programs from Madagascar to the Philippines, with the longest stint in Haiti. She managed WASH programs, directed the relief mission following the 2016 hurricane, and at the age of 29, was the youngest non-Haitian entrepreneur, having founded Anacaona, an ingenious soap-recycling program. Named after the indigenous woman who died refusing to become the concubine of the Spanish conquistadores, the operation enlists the local hotels to donate used guest soaps instead of throwing them away, which then are reprocessed, and sold in part to a French luxury cosmetic firm, with the rest given to local needy people and used to improve their personal sanitation. Recently modified, the program persists today, employing local single mothers in a setting where jobs and income are scarce to nonexistent. Throw in a program to deal with a cholera outbreak, and I have to wonder how she finds time to sleep. Despite the demands of her work, she has managed to find a personal connection that will reshape the nature of her involvement with Partners in Health, but not her passion for the cause that has been motivating her life all these years.
Ludji Chipps is the grandson of Haitian Episcopal priest Fritz LaFontant, the co-founder with Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, and Dr. Farmer’s godson. He is a tall, handsome man with a warm, open smile, and a carriage that hints at his athletic career as a football (soccer) forward who led his U Mass school to a last minute victory over their arch-rival Vikings. Reminded of his moment of glory, his face lights up with recollection of the time, as well as surprise that I would be aware of his triumph. Since then, he’s been toiling in a much more challenging arena, where victory is hard to achieve, and comes with frequent setbacks, as Senior Advisor for Partners in Health in Haiti.
Both he and Laure are such genuine people, filled with kindness and a transparent desire to keep working in an area that is challenging at best, and difficult almost always. Yet they not only persevere, but took time to meet with my wife and myself to answer questions openly, without attempts at subterfuge or obfuscation. We ask a lot of questions, and they answered all of them, both about the program, as well as their personal lives. Sadly, we only had a couple of hours to spend together, as they both had flights to catch from LAX: she to San Francisco, and he to Miami, then back to Haiti.
We are modest donors to a program that is also supported by large foundations and organizations. The fact that they took time to meet with us, share their enthusiasm for their work, and asking nothing of us in return – no request for commitments or future pledges, no list of names of other potential donors, only a heartfelt “thank you” for what we had already done, was refreshing and touching. We could have talked with them for hours, for despite our age differences, we had a number of things in common. It’s also not often that one has a chance to meet people who are so honest, open, alive, and involved in the world beyond their own small interests. They left us with two great gifts. The first was a book, “To Repair the World” by Dr. Paul Farmer, a collection of some of speeches at major university graduations, dealing with his ideas of social justice and the kind of medical care the world needs, which I have almost finished, and will likely reread many times, as well as encourage my students to read. The second, and by far the most important, was they left us a wonderful gift of hope. It comes as no surprise to anyone who turns on the news that it is easy to become jaded and despairing for the future of mankind when confronted by the barrage of all the negatives expressed in the media. It took the inherent goodness and positive purpose these two young people embody each day in their lives, not to mention the ability of Dr. Farmer to inspire so many to imagine and make real what can be possible to make us realize not only how fortunate we are in all the gifts we have already been given, but of what we ourselves are capable of achieving if we link arms and dare to imagine better. In the words of Luciano De Crescenzo, we are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.
Give yourself a gift. Read about the work of Partners in Health, and the stories of Dr. Paul Farmer. You too may become uplifted.
How beautiful that you were able to meet these rays of hope, the legacy of Dr. Farmer. Mountains Beyond Mountains humbled me; there are so many people doing (or have done) selfless work, and are inspirations and catalysts for others. I passed my copy to a friend, and hopefully that copy has the fingerprints of many more readers.
News of his death was a surprise, yet his legacy continues. “To Repair the World” will be top of my wish list.
Thanks for sharing this story.