Categorized | Marquette, News

Infectious disease healer Paul Farmer speaks of desirable infection: Imagination

Posted on 16 February 2011 by Anna Ceragioli

Paul FarmerCupping both hands above his glasses to see through the stage lights, Paul Farmer scanned the large audience before him. “Okay…ten points to Gryffindor if you can name all seven of the Corporeal Works of Mercy.”

As part of Marquette’s 2011 Mission Week, “Imagining God,” physician and Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., addressed students, faculty and guests in the Varsity Theatre last Thursday. In his speech, “Imagine a More Just World: Partnering with the Poor,” Farmer spoke of his global healthcare projects and the roles imagination and passion play in the ongoing mission of aiding the world’s poor.

Prior to Farmer’s address was the performance, “Drums, Dance, and Song.” This performance was presented by members of One Drum, the University of Fine Arts’ School of Dance, St. Michaels and St. Rose parish choirs, the Kinsella Academy of Irish Dance, and the Marquette Capoeira Nago Brazilian dance group.

“Having just flown in from Haiti,” Farmer began, smiling to the audience, “I’d like to thank the university for the kind gift of earmuffs.”

He continued: “I’m going to start by doing something kind of rare for me… looking at the Corporeal Works of Mercy.” Using examples from his work in Haiti, Peru, Russia and Rwanda, Farmer explained that these works, such as feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the poor and visiting the sick and imprisoned, are foundational to the mission of global healthcare.

Farmer’s statements on healthcare to the poor looked significantly to Haiti, where he has worked as a physician for nearly thirty years. In that time, Farmer spearheaded the Zanmi Lasante community clinic project, which now serves as a hospital, blood bank, infectious-disease center, school center, and model for hospitals in poor areas throughout the world.

However great Farmer’s contributions have been, he stresses that Haiti’s problems remain extensive. Farmer describes the January 2010 earthquake as “acute insult to chronic problems.” These chronic problems include water poverty (including a massive cholera outbreak), high occurrences of infectious disease, food insecurity, economic corruption and the lack of institutionalized civilian rights to healthcare and education. And the earthquake further exacerbated this problem: 1.3 million Haitians are still homeless.

“It’s easy to lose hope,” Farmer said. “It takes a very disciplined imagination to see something better.” He explained that this type of imagination is a learned skill obtained from experience and study.

“Look at something not good, and imagine it as the start of a conversation about how to make it better,” he said. Farmer’s imagination has already led to modern medical centers and teaching facilities in Haiti, the revolution of global tuberculosis treatment and a beautiful new hospital at a former military base in Rwanda.

Farmer said that the imagination of a team “has to be infectious; it must spread throughout the people with whom you work.” He then showed the latest imagining of himself and his Partner’s in Health colleagues – a proposed hospital in rural Haiti. As the audience gasped at the impressive computer model for the facility, Farmer smiled and said that some would consider such projects the result of “over­-imagination.”

“But,” Farmer said, looking meaningfully into a crowd gathered in the fourth poorest city in America, “we cannot continue the assumption that we can’t do more for the poor.”

Following Farmer’s address, he engaged in a panel discussion lead by Department of Theology assistant chair M. Therese Lysaught, College of Nursing dean Dr. Margaret Callahan and College of Health Sciences dean Dr. William Cullinan.

Aaron Owen, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, reflects on the panel discussion. “When Dr. Farmer was asked what inspires him, he said that it is the youth and energy of his students, which is ironic because he is the inspiration for so many of us.”

“You’re at the island of privilege, here at Marquette,” Farmer told the students in the audience. Then, with a bit of a smile, he advised, “Going to classes is good.”

Learn about Farmer’s work at

by Anna Ceragioli
[email protected]

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