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On my watch – Grieving for the loss of Dr. Paul Farmer

Dr. Paul Farmer in center, to his left, Ophelia Dahl and Leslie King. Contributed photo, Ophelia Dahl

By Anne W. Semmes

If the medical field could have saints the way the Catholic Church does, Dr. Paul Farmer who has just died at the untimely death of 62, would be on his way to sainthood. As founder of Partners in Health (PIH), a global health enterprise serving the poorest of the poor, he is said to have died of an acute cardiac event in his sleep. Was it just too much to bear the endless care to so many needy people?

I never met Paul Farmer, but I have known two people close to him, Leslie King, late of Greenwich (but still owner of Back 40 Mercantile in Old Greenwich) who serves on the PIH board, and I have talked with another profoundly close to him, Ophelia Dahl who is co-founder of Partners in Health. How they must be feeling now is unbearable to imagine.

Dr. Fauci who we all know, is reported to have broken down in tears hearing of Farmer’s death reports The New York Times. Fauci said he and Dr. Farmer were “like soul brothers.” “He called me his mentor, but in reality, he was more of a mentor to me.”

Ophelia Dahl, daughter of the famed author Roald Dahl, had shared with me last year on a story I wrote about Leslie King and her work with PIH just how she Ophelia came to know Paul Farmer. At age 18, living in England, she was accepted to Wellesley College, but her father had directed her to first go to Haiti to “do good works.” She spent the next seven years helping Paul Farmer build Partners in Health to bring healthcare to the poorest places on earth. And then she went to Wellesley. She has never left PIH, and now serves as chair of the board of directors of PIH.

Leslie King continues to serve on the PIH board, serving with Ophelia on the board’s executive committee, while now living with husband Bill in California. And yes, ten percent of sales from her shop Back 40 Mercantile goes to Partners In Health. It was that book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” (picked as a Greenwich Library Read) that led her to Partners in Health. “They’ve gotten to the most impoverished places where other groups say it’s too hard to get to,” she told me.

Inspired Leslie introduced PIH to an inspiration” book group of 12 Greenwich women and introduced them to PIH Executive Director Ophelia Dahl. “We were just beginning our work in Rwanda,” shared Ophelia. “Lesley was able to get a whole community interested and involved. She did it with cold calling. She was not worried about reaching out to her friends. She held a fundraiser. There was never anyone doing it like that. She organized it all and then sustained their interest and brought people to our sites in Rwanda.”

Fast forward to a final tribute she had for her then Greenwich friend Leslie. “There’s a word we use at PIH – ‘accompaniment.’ When someone sides with someone, stands shoulder to shoulder with them, on the board level, on the friend’s level, on the support level – they are accompanying them in challenging times.”

For Ophelia and for Leslie, these are indeed challenging and painful times to have lost their leader Paul Farmer. There is only phrase I know that resonates as it would with Paul Farmer, “Carry on.”

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