Traveling with a doctor who seldom sleeps

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, October 10, 2004

If you're going to traipse through difficult terrain in Haiti for 11 hours, it's a good idea to have someone like Dr. Paul Farmer with you.

Tracy Kidder, who wrote "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World" ($25.95, Random House, 301 pages), found his travel companion's skills comforting, to say the least.

When Kidder's filtered water ran low on the hike and he began detecting a slight flutter in his chest, Farmer said it was probably heartburn. Nevertheless, the doctor asked at farms for oranges for the author and brought him Coca-Cola when they arrived at a town. Kidder couldn't drink the local water due to the microorganisms it contained.

"I have a little tendency toward hypochondria," Kidder said, speaking by phone from his home in western Massachusetts. "I wasn't frightened as I would have been elsewhere."

A frantic pace

Keeping track of Farmer, a Harvard-educated infectious disease specialist, was daunting. Kidder says the man rarely sleeps and is always on the move -- across Russia, Cuba, Peru and Haiti, where he started the charity hospital Zanmi Lasante.

Along the way, while pushing for more funding for his organization, Partners in Health, from bureaucrats and corporations, he always found time to visit patients, whether they were in a modern hospital in Boston or a dirt-floor hut in the mountains of Haiti.

Farmer "is interested in everyone's health, really," said Kidder, who will read from "Mountains Beyond Mountains" on Tuesday, when he visits the New York State Writers Institute.

"It was exhausting, but exhilarating," Kidder said of Farmer's pace. "The difference to me of going to Haiti by myself or going there with Farmer is that when I go there alone, I get depressed -- things are so terrible." But when he traveled with Farmer, it was inspiring.

"A day in his life is like a week or a month in another person's life," Kidder said. While Kidder took copious notes, "after 10 minutes my notebook was soaked with sweat." Kidder relied on a tape recorder to reconstruct the trip, but still found himself with more information than he could ever use.

"The hardest part was giving it a structure and trying to find incidents that would stand for others," Kidder said. "I didn't want to write a doorstop of a book."

Finding the story

Kidder, Harvard-educated himself, has a way of inserting himself into the story without being intrusive. In fact, in the book he operated as his own sounding board when some of Farmer's tactics didn't make sense. Farmer was then given the chance to explain himself.

When asked if the book changed him, Kidder gave a humble answer: "I don't know if it did. The reason I wanted to write it -- it looked like a really good story."

Kidder, 58, is the sort of writer who can find just the right narrative line for any subject. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for "The Soul of a New Machine" (1981, updated and reissued in 1997), a pioneering look at the new computer culture. His other early books include "House" (1985), which followed nothing more or less than the adventures of a couple building their first family home, and "Among Schoolchildren" (1989), about a fifth-grade teacher. More recently, he's written "Old Friends" (1993), which details a year in the life of a nursing home, and "Home Town" (1999), a study of Northampton, Mass. He just completed "My Detachment," a memoir about his time in Vietnam as a junior officer; it's set for release in late 2005.

Besides capturing Farmer's dizzying work day, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" does a good job of educating the layman about tuberculosis. "I just assumed, like most Americans, that it wasn't a problem in the world anymore," Kidder said. "From here, it looks like a disease that's been all but conquered, but in fact, (it) remains one of the biggest killers in the world. ... TB could have been totally wiped out. Wealthy countries got the necessary drugs. Poor countries didn't, so it flourished."

Kidder documented how Farmer helped bring medicine to impoverished areas and then worked on a protocol that involved providing patients with good nutrition, housing and follow-up care.

Farmer also had an unorthodox upbringing, which attracted Kidder to the story of his life. Farmer grew up with limited means, living in a refurbished bus and on a houseboat in Florida, and went on to attend Harvard Medical School. He founded the hospital in Haiti while still a student.

Kidder said he's interested in raising money for Partners in Health, Farmer's organization. At first the journalist in him didn't think it was his place. But then he found himself asking, "Why isn't it my place?"

"If Partners in Health and Zanmi Lasante went down the tubes and ceased to exist," the author said, "I wouldn't sleep for the rest of my life."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Tracy Kidder
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