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Doctor’s story a lesson for Holy Cross graduates

Posted By June 1, 2012 | 1:14 pm | Lead Story #2
By Tanya Connor The doctor had walked eight miles and given a healthcare talk in a thatched-roof church with a dirt floor. His injured leg hurt. Storm clouds were gathering. It was time to go home. Then a health care worker asked him to see a man who couldn’t breathe and lived 45 minutes away in the opposite direction. The doctor protested. After all, he reasoned, he didn’t even have any medicine with him. But he was prevailed upon. In a shack he found Joe, a young man dying of an asthma attack, his wife and children watching. The doctor, an asthmatic himself, did have one medicine on him – an inhaler full of albuterol – just what Joe needed. He administered it and Joe weakly responded, “Thank you doctor.” The crowd outside praised the doctor, and Joe said: “You saved my life.”

By Tanya Connor

The doctor had walked eight miles and given a healthcare talk in a thatched-roof church with a dirt floor.
His injured leg hurt. Storm clouds were gathering. It was time to go home.
Then a health care worker asked him to see a man who couldn’t breathe and lived 45 minutes away in the opposite direction. The doctor protested. After all, he reasoned, he didn’t even have any medicine with him. But he was prevailed upon.
In a shack he found Joe, a young man dying of an asthma attack, his wife and children watching.
The doctor, an asthmatic himself, did have one medicine on him – an inhaler full of albuterol – just what Joe needed. He administered it and Joe weakly responded, “Thank you doctor.” The crowd outside praised the doctor, and Joe said: “You saved my life.”
That doctor, Paul E. Farmer, told this story at the 166th commencement at the College of the Holy Cross last Friday. The founding director of Partners in Health, he was introduced as having treated thousands of desperate people in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. He received an honorary doctor of humane letters.
Other honorary degree recipients were Jesuit Father Michael C. McFarland, the college’s former president; Lisa Sowle Cahill, theological ethicist from Boston College, and Sherry Turkle, scholar and author from MIT. Bachelor of arts degrees were awarded to about 690 graduates, the college said.
Dr. Farmer said the inhaler story happened in Haiti, but holds lessons for the United States and elsewhere. He said the day after receiving the albuterol, Joe walked the eight miles, bringing him a rooster and eggs, saying he was a second Lazarus and would pray for the doctor daily.
Dr. Farmer had heard such things before.
“It was an accident, I wanted to say, not a miracle,” he said. But he thanked Joe and gave him more inhalers.
A few days later Joe was back with a goat. Dr. Farmer said it was dumb luck that had saved him. Joe disagreed. So did the crowd: “You were meant to be there to save Joe.” Joe, his family and the health care workers probably still believe that, Dr. Farmer said.
But the commencement speaker turned his focus elsewhere. He said the inequality in the world seems to be growing rather than shrinking. He spoke of the tiny percentage of the population which holds much of the world’s wealth and asked what it means to die of asthma in an age of Facebook. He told graduates he hoped they seek ways to shrink inequalities.
Dr. Farmer also focused on “social networks” needed to yank people out of their stubborn ways. The insistence of the community health care workers in Haiti that turned his “no” into a “yes” in the inhaler story was social networking, he said. If he had acted as an isolated particle, he might have cheated himself out of that experience, but he was ashamed to cut loose from his social network.
Privilege comes with obligations to others, especially the poor, he said, and spoke of Holy Cross as a Jesuit school founded on Catholic social teaching.
“You have benefitted from a remarkable liberal arts education,” Dr. Farmer told graduates, and said the path he’s on was set at Duke University.
In the emergency room there he met Haitian migrant workers who harvested vegetables in North Carolina and did not have access to primary health care there or in Haiti, he said. By contrast, when he developed asthma, and later was hit by a car, he could easily get the needed treatment.
Dr. Farmer praised the valedictory address and said he would remember it. Valedictorian Mark C. G. Weyland had talked about forms a Holy Cross education took for graduates.
After mentioning science and history lessons Mr. Weyland said of the college: “It encouraged us to do nothing less than follow in the footsteps of the man whose own journey brought him to the summit of a different hill, under the shadow of the cross from which our school takes its name.” He asked what this mission means to them and said those are no easy steps to follow.

Whatever they studied cannot be an end unto itself, but must be “informed by a spirit of faith seeking understanding,” he said. “What we have learned is a way of proceeding in a perilous and broken world that is desperately in need of us. …
“Our education has taught us to think critically, to engage meaningfully, and to walk into the world intentionally. It has taught us to question and reminded us that it’s OK to not always know the answer. … Walking in the footsteps of our professors and our parents most of all, who labored for us more than we will ever know, we learned the value of inspiring joy in others without them knowing we were responsible for it. … We learned to accompany those who are different from ourselves, to speak for those who do not have a voice, to stand with those whom the world has overlooked.
“Following the way of the Cross means not taking a single step into the world without discernment, without conviction, and, above all, without love. Thomas Aquinas once said, ‘Since one who loves another looks upon his friend as another self, he counts his friend’s hurt as his own…’
“Elie Wiesel reminds us that ‘The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. … So let us not live indifferently. Let us live differently.  Let us integrate ourselves into the world at its heart, taking care of ourselves even as we take care of those around us.  Let us live with intelligence, humility, deliberation, courage, wonder, love.”