How Dr. Paul Farmer Inspired, and Was Inspired by, Nurses

PIH CEO shares the co-founder’s influence on her and the field of nursing

Posted on May 7, 2022

Paul Farmer consults on patient following earthquake in southern Haiti
PIH Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer consults with nurses and doctors on an earthquake survivor's case in southern Haiti in August 2021. Photo by Clare Orie / PIH

PIH CEO Dr. Sheila Davis reflects on the impact PIH Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer had on her career as a nurse and leader and discusses the ways in which he inspired, and was inspired by, nurses all around the world.

As I prepare to celebrate Nurses Week this year, it is with both immeasurable admiration and immense sadness, as I can’t help but reflect on the legacy of Dr. Paul Farmer and his impact on the field of nursing.  

As a nurse in the 1980’s in Boston working in the HIV field, I often crossed paths with a young Paul Farmer, and after joining Partners In Health in 2010, I was fortunate to work closely with Paul for over a decade. It was in that time that I came to realize how much he cultivated, guided, and inspired an entire generation of nurse leaders around the world who continue to build on his work to this day.  

Since PIH’s inception in 1987, we have grown into a team of over 19,000 employees across 11 countries who provide care to over 8 million people. And the largest clinician cadre amongst our staff are nurses and midwives. Throughout his lifetime, Paul was a staunch believer in the value of nursing and the extraordinary role that nurses and midwives play in the strategic delivery of health care. His perspective on nursing was largely shaped by humility and exposure to the incredible work nurses were doing at PIH’s care delivery sites.

He witnessed the consistent presence of strong nurse leaders around him demonstrating their expertise while fulfilling our organization’s mission. 

As Paul designed and as core to PIH’s commitment, medical education and health care delivery are deeply intertwined. As so many of us have witnessed firsthand, Paul was an extraordinary educator and knew that the way to build sustainable change was to invest in quality education in the classroom and at the bedside. Paul fulfilled his aspiration to create the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) in Rwanda, which advances global health delivery by training a new generation of global health leaders equipped in not just building, but sustaining, effective and equitable health systems. Specifically, the university is home to the Center for Nursing & Midwifery, which began with an executive education leadership program and will expand to include master’s programs in nursing specialties. 

PIH and UGHE leaders are committed to ensuring that the university evolves into a transformational platform for nurses globally. I could not be prouder of what that means for us as an organization as we continue to build our nursing programs, such as those at Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais in Haiti, which trains nurse anesthetists, neonatal intensive care unit, oncology, emergency, as well as other nurse specialists and was where PIH’s first Nursing Center of Excellence opened.   

Paul Farmer speaks with pediatric residents at Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais in Haiti
Farmer speaks with pediatric residents about a young patient's case at Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais in Haiti in December 2016. Photo by Rebecca E. Rollins / PIH

Paul was a vocal and relentless advocate for nurses to be in leadership positions worldwide, and he was instrumental in supporting my upward trajectory within the organization, resulting in me becoming the first nurse CEO of PIH in July 2019. His mentorship and partnership provided me entry into the physician-dominated domain of global NGOs. Throughout our 12-year friendship, I witnessed how the values he lived by inspired an entire movement toward global health equity. His values were rooted in the foundation of PIH and in each of us as nurse leaders – values of commitment, pragmatic solidarity, accompaniment, humility, and integrity. These are values that set the foundation of my training as a nurse, as a CEO, and as a global citizen, and are values that I see in each of our nurse leaders across PIH. 

A few days before he passed, Paul sent me a text message from Rwanda with a picture of one of PIH’s nurses teaching a group of medical residents how to do an echocardiogram, stating: “Nurses have always been my best teachers.” Paul saw the potential in each human being, and he saw the potential in me as a nurse leader. He had extraordinary courage to challenge the status quo, to call out the vast injustices in health care while using his voice to influence and raise the visibility of nurses and midwives globally. Paul was inspiring, but he was also inspired. He was inspired by this work every day, and he was inspired by the nursing teams, the nurses at each of our sites that he got to work with side-by-side. I know he would want each of us to continue to work together towards the vision he had for PIH and for the future of the nursing field. 

I am deeply grateful for the time I shared with Paul and for the memories I keep close to my heart. 

It was such a gift to have experienced life with him and to have felt seen by him. As we celebrate the field of nursing, I hope that we all take a moment to thank those who have helped support, encourage, and amplify nurse leaders for the betterment of global health care for all. I hope we also take the time to celebrate the compassion and leadership that nurses demonstrate every day. During this global pandemic, nurses have stepped up in unimaginable ways. I feel honored to be a nurse and to work alongside my colleagues all around the world.  

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