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Haiti: A deeper look

As news reports pour out of Haiti in our tweet-per-second news cycle, it's worth pausing to reflect on Tracy Kidder's 2003 book on Haiti, "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World." So many books have been written about nations ravaged by disease and conflict. But Kidder's bestseller about one physician's impact on the nation of 9 million people transcends so many others because it features two very introspective characters: the reporter and the doctor.

(For proof of the book's lasting impact, search "Tracy Kidder" on Twitter and you'll find dozens of tweets such as: "@excinit: just read "mountains beyond mountains" by Tracy Kidder - so my heart really goes out to the people of Haiti. Why must they suffer so much?")

Writing in the first person, Kidder shadows Farmer, a Harvard physician who splits his time between Cambridge and Haiti, where he runs a medical facility serving Haitians afflicted with AIDS and tuberculosis, among other illnesses.

Some of the more vivid scenes I remember are watching Kidder as he tries to keep up with Farmer while hiking around the grueling countryside seeking out patients; or, toward the end of the book, witnessing Farmer's medical workers spend nearly $19,000 to chopper out a Haitian boy suffering from a rare cancer, only to watch the boy die three weeks later. Yes, Kidder's book certainly lionized Farmer and promoted his organization in the eyes of would-be donors. But the journalist also did not spare details that illustrated Farmer's hopelessness and do-good-at-any-cost desperation.

Here's a great passage cited in The New York Times review of the book in 2003:

What, Kidder wonders, could drive a man to such superhuman effort? "The problem is, if I don't work this hard, someone will die who doesn't have to," Farmer says. "That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn't have said that to you before I'd taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true." And as for psychic motivation, Farmer says: "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. . . . 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."

By Ian Shapira  | January 13, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism , More on the story  
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