Suffolk grads urged ‘to muster good will’

Dr. Paul Farmer lauded Americans’ contributions to the relief effort in Haiti. Dr. Paul Farmer lauded Americans’ contributions to the relief effort in Haiti.
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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Amidst the death and disfigurement, the wanton destruction and trauma to an already fragile nation, Dr. Paul Farmer found a glimmer of inspiration in the aftermath of January’s earthquake in Haiti.

“More than half of all American households contributed to relief efforts in one way or another,’’ Farmer, cofounder of Partners in Health in Boston and a United Nations deputy envoy to Haiti, told 1,251 graduates yesterday afternoon at Suffolk University’s commencement. “That is to me an astounding reminder of the good will we can muster for one another.’’

But all of that good has not been enough to heal Haiti’s deep wounds, Farmer said, because aid does not al ways reach those in need. The balkanization of relief services and broken infrastructure often disrupts the help. More needs to be done.

“You are not surprised,’’ Farmer said, “that I use this pulpit to ask for even more solidarity with our neighbors and also gratitude for what Haiti has done for the world.’’

That expression of gratitude distinguished Farmer’s appeal as he spoke with an upbeat reverence about the country where he has worked for almost three decades to provide medical care for the poor. All modern human rights movements trace their origins to the antislavery movement that scored a decisive victory in Haiti in 1791, when a slave revolt defeated Napoleon’s army, he said. The country’s forefathers wrote a declaration of independence in 1804 that established Latin American’s first independent nation based on principles steeped in the antislavery moment.

“We also need to recognize and develop and support the genius of the Haitian people who have led the way, I will argue today, in the past and who can and must lead now in this difficult moment,’’ Farmer said.

New challenges face the country, however, as the hurricane season conjures fresh fears whirling on the horizon. It underscored the need to redouble the world’s efforts to help Haiti rebuild.

“What would it take for you and for all of us to provide a bit more and better, pragmatic solidarity to our oldest neighbors?’’ Farmer asked. “The answer to that rhetorical question in my view is a bit of heroism and common courage from each of us.’’

But the speech at the Bank of America Pavilion in South Boston went beyond a call for donations. Farmer offered a candid telling of his personal history, describing how a child from North Adams became one of the world’s most renowned medical humanitarians.

In 1985, Farmer was a 25-year-old medical student working in Haiti when he witnessed the ravages of tetanus, a disease that could be prevented for pennies with a simple vaccine. But in developing nations without adequate medical care, even simple vaccines can be scarce, which is why a teenage woman came under his care in the grips of convulsions so intense he feared the spasms would fracture her vertebrate. But in a makeshift clinic, they cordoned off a quiet, dark room for the woman to recuperate, hoping the lack of stimuli would keep her from convulsing.

“And I began to think that our little ICU — even without a ventilator — might save her life,’’ Farmer said, recalling the private pact he made with himself at that moment to dedicate his life to bringing medical care to people living in poverty “It was a great feeling. One of the greatest feelings a doctor can know.’’

“That’s the kind of felicity I wish for all you graduates,’’ Farmer said. “To do something compelling that give you a sense of satisfaction over the years.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at

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