One year later: Dr. Paul Farmer’s death, and the war in Ukraine

Sunset over Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the Sudbury River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sunset over Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the Sudbury River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's Note: This is a letter from the editors included in WBUR's weekly opinions and ideas newsletter, Cognoscenti. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, sign up here

I can so clearly recall this week last year. To me, it felt like the whole world was coming undone. First, Dr. Paul Farmer died, unexpectedly, in Rwanda. Then, a few days later, Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a brutal war that has since killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and disrupted the world order.

This week, we revisit both stories.

Anastasya Partan was born in Russia. She lived with her family in Moscow as a child. Now, as an adult, she is “turbulently furious” with the country of her birth for “destroying the country of her ancestors.” Asya’s great-grandmother was born on a Ukrainian estate seized by the Bolsheviks. The piece opens through a narrow aperture — a trip to a local Russian grocery store gone horribly wrong — before widening into a reflection on what it means to be Russian, fatalism and the responsibility we all share to keep paying attention.

Many of you may be familiar with Dr. Paul Farmer. The primary of subject of Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains," he was a co-founder of the Boston-based nonprofit Partners In Health (PIH) and a medical anthropologist affiliated with Harvard for nearly 40 years. When Farmer died last year, Cog produced a piece memorializing his life, in the words of his colleagues and friends.

To mark the first anniversary of his death, I talked with 10 of Farmer’s friends and colleagues. I wanted to understand how they’d moved on after losing someone so important. Their answers were honest about how difficult it’s been, but also hopeful. Ophelia Dahl, one of his oldest friends, told me that she thought Paul knew he wouldn’t have a long life, but that he was “full of beans” about the future.

When working on a project like this, there’s inevitably a massive amount of material I can’t include in the final version. Here’s one anecdote that didn’t make it from Ishaan Desai, Farmer’s research assistant for seven years. He told me how Paul spent the final weeks of his life caring for patients and teaching students in Rwanda. He was, by his own account, the happiest he’d been in a long time.


They’d begin at Butaro District Hospital, a short drive across the valley from the University of Global Health Equity (a PIH initiative), where they were spending most of their time. Ishaan explained that even though Paul had a lot going on — many sick patients to care for, ongoing commitments at Harvard, a grueling schedule — on those car rides to and fro, Paul almost always put Nina Simone on the radio and sang along. She was one of his favorite artists. It’s an extraordinary image, and one that showcases his ability to find moments of joy even amidst the most dispiriting of circumstances.

As the universe would have it, Nina Simone would’ve been 90 this year on Feb. 21, the anniversary of his death. Listen for her at the end of the radio version of the piece.

Until soon,

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Headshot of Cloe Axelson

Cloe Axelson Senior Editor, Cognoscenti
Cloe Axelson is an editor of WBUR’s opinion page, Cognoscenti.



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