Mountains beyond mountains

True stories can be far more compelling than any fiction, which explains why I quickly became engrossed a few years ago in reading "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World."

It’s the story of a public health doctor and infectious disease specialist who has devoted himself to one of the most poverty-stricken corners of the globe – rural Haiti. Here, in the central highlands, Dr. Farmer helped establish a hospital and health center that became the cornerstone of Partners in Health, the nonprofit organization he co-founded to bring needed health care to the poorest of the poor.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder was in Haiti in 1994, reporting on American soldiers who were in the country on a peacekeeping mission, when he met Dr. Farmer. Eventually he decided to write a book about this extraordinary doctor, his work in Haiti and the daunting issue of global health, especially among the poor. "Mountains Beyond Mountains" is the result. (The book’s title refers to a Haitian proverb that describes the never-ending hardships and challenges of life: "Beyond mountains there are mountains.")

It’s an illuminating book, not only for the light it sheds on Haiti and its history and culture but also for its examination of global poverty and the impact of poverty on health.

Here’s how Haiti fares in some of the most recent statistics collected by the World Health Organization: three physicians for every 1,000 people; one nurse or midwife per 1,000 people; less than one dentist per 1,000 people; 13 hospital beds for every 10,000 people. (Figures are for 2007, the most recent year for which complete numbers were available.) Given such a fragile health care infrastructure, it’s not hard to see why last week’s earthquake has had such a profound and devastating effect on the Haitian people.

Dr. Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, is working to raise funds and coordinate donations and volunteers for earthquake relief. Follow the link to read more about the "Stand With Haiti" campaign, including reflections by Dr. Farmer, the personal account of a physician’s first 12 hours on the scene in Port au Prince, and a blog post by author Tracy Kidder. And I’d highly recommend reading "Mountains Beyond Mountains." A copy of the book is available at the Willmar Public Library.

Update: As the focus shifts from trying to rescue people to caring for the survivors, the health crisis in Haiti is deepening. This story, which appears today in USA Today, explains the challenges ahead. Doctors Without Borders also has posted a firsthand account and slideshow on its Web site.

Photo: Daniel Morel, Wozo Productions