Claudine Humure: "Dr. Paul Farmer: Who He Was and Why He Mattered—A Personal Perspective"

Claudine Humure

Claudine Humure, among Paul Farmer's first patients in Rwanda in the early 2000s, wrote this reflection following his death:

Now that my heart has broken into pieces and I have somehow mended a few of them, let me tell you about a man who dreamed so that I could have a life. A man who believed in a girl with just a name and an unknown illness. Let me tell you about Dr. Paul Farmer, a man, without whose dream and drive to better the world, I would not be here. A man who poured his soul into the world until his last breath. I think everyone who knew Dr. Paul Farmer well would agree with me that he did everything he was created to do and then more.

Dr. Paul Farmer exemplified love and compassion in a way that no one else could. His love for people is what created Partners In Health (PIH), a dream that birthed the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), a dream to educate the world and treat the underserved. He has left a legacy that will span generations. Our children and their children will reap the benefits of his work because he planted his seeds in people.

Like so many others, it is hard for me to imagine a world without him. He meant so much more than could be put into words. Sometimes words are not enough, and in this case, they truly aren’t.

As I write this piece, so many bits and pieces of memories I shared with him come back to mind more vividly than I ever perceived them. His impact on my life is much more than I could say but I will share just a few moments. 

I first met Dr. Paul in 2005, when I was a patient at a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I ended up in DRC because I had exhausted all the resources in Rwanda, looking for a place to get a diagnosis and a cure, to no avail. Dr. Paul and his team were starting to establish PIH in Rwanda at the time. I was just a 12-year-old girl from an orphanage, but he came to see me anyway. I imagine he probably drove more than six hours, stopping here and there to greet strangers along his path, until he crossed the border of Rwanda and DRC, on an exhausting bumpy road, just for me. Who else would do that, for a girl they have never met, just for the purpose of helping? The more I think about Dr. Paul, the more he exemplifies the model of Christ. He was a one-of-a-kind physician.

Before he came to see me, I had previously met some of his team members at the Imbabazi Orphanage in Gisenyi, where I grew up. They came to visit the orphanage to play with the children, like the many other visitors we had previously received, and then they met me, bedridden due to an unknown illness, and they kept coming back. Among Dr. Paul’s team was Dr. Joia Mukherjee. I remember her very well, because like Dr. Paul, Dr. Joia was very loving and she spoke to me in an unforgettable way, despite me not understanding a word of English and her not understanding Kinyarwanda. Yet, we connected.

At the hospital in DRC, I vividly remember Dr. Paul standing in the doorway of my room with two other doctors, looking at an image of my x-ray. This was in January 2005.

Months later, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of cancer, and was sent to Massachusetts General Hospital by PIH for chemotherapy. I met Dr. Paul again at a symposium in Boston where he was onstage, influencing a multitude of people like I would see him do again and again as the years went on. I was in my wheelchair with my “Boston mom,” Cathy O’Flaherty, who also has a heart of gold, when I saw him onstage. My mind quickly connected the dots and I turned to Cathy and said, “I know that man!” The image of him standing in my hospital room in the DRC came back, and I remembered as he pushed his glasses back to look at my x-rays with two other doctors that had been tending to me during my time in that hospital. It was surreal! This moment became more significant as I learned more about Dr. Paul and the lengths he went to in order to ensure that I and many others in my situation had a chance at life.

Years later, when we were sharing dinner and my battle with cancer was long behind me, I joked with him about the moment we first met in DRC and he looked at me, and then to the doctors at the table, and said, “I didn’t have all the money in the world, but I knew that I could look at an x-ray and be useful.” Looking back, I believe this was a teaching moment for all of us who were sitting there.  

We shared many more dinners together over the ensuing years, meeting up each time he visited Rwanda. In between his travels, we corresponded regularly over text. But one Monday morning this February, when I awoke, something felt unusual. I opened my phone after saying my usual prayers and was jolted by a text from my friend in Rwanda that read, “Condolence sweetie for the loss of Dr. Paul Farmer.” I felt a tightness in my stomach; my heart sunk and, for a moment, and I couldn’t breathe. I told myself that it was not true. I read the text over and over again, until the lines were more clear. Then I went back to bed, covering myself, hoping that it was just a nightmare that I would wake up from. I picked up my phone, called my other “mom,” Lesley King, and with a shaky voice, I asked her, “Is it true?” To my dismay, she said yes. I was shaken, confused, and disappointed at the world and God! I could not believe the news! It was just too much–the rest of the day was a spiral of tears.

Then I reflected, went through a few pictures of me and Dr. Paul, and though initially overcome with emotions of pain, I started to feel gratitude. I was grateful to have been blessed to know him. He was truly a blessing. He first became my doctor, then he became my friend, then he became my colleague, and then he became a father. Our relationship was profound, and it is truly the definition of what he always taught his staff: accompaniment. The power of walking with those you serve and those you serve with. We walked the walk together.

I am grateful to God for giving me a friend like Dr. Paul. In the four years I spent in Rwanda after my college graduation in 2017, our friendship grew deeper to that of a father and a daughter. I called him uncle Paul and he called me his daughter. At that time, I was working at the University of Global Health Equity, where I held various roles including working as a partnership coordinator. Most of my work included welcoming and accompanying guests to all the PIH sites in Rwanda. When Dr. Paul came to Rwanda, he took me almost everywhere he went, even in places I didn’t really need to be. He would ask me to drive with him to Rwinkwavu or Butaro, to attend a meeting with him, to see patients and students with him, to sit with him at a dinner table with all the highly esteemed doctors and ministers who would otherwise be too powerful for my reach. He even took me to some of his meetings with the first family of Rwanda. Looking back, I realize now that he taught me so much more in those moments than I will ever obtain from any degree. 

One of my fondest memories with him is when he asked me to take a trip from Kigali to Rwinkwavu, the first hospital he established in Rwanda. We left midday and for over two hours we had such deep conversations that will stay with me forever. I had just finished writing my first op-ed. I brought a draft for him to review before it got published by Devex. He quickly scanned through it and, with what seemed like teary eyes, he said to me, “You remind me of myself when I was your age.” Those words felt like the greatest of honors. I took them to heart. The rest of the car ride, we talked about his life as a medical student, our connection, and his connection with his most trusted driver, Andre, and everything in between. That day, he didn’t get car sick as he often did. It was a beautiful and emotional car ride and it has been a beautiful journey watching and learning from him.

For me, Dr. Paul’s death has brought many things into perspective. It has been a reminder that life is indeed short and that we are all more connected than we believe. Before his premature passing, he accomplished so much more than many of us will ever achieve in our lifetime. As Dr. Paul has so beautifully modeled, I hope we all learn to love and care for one another more deeply and to take pleasure in life’s simplest things. I hope we learn to give without expecting anything in return. I hope we are all inspired to see possibility in the things that may seem lifeless at first, because in a way, Dr. Paul breathed life into all of us.