While Mountains Beyond Mountains doesn’t have many symbols (it’s a work of non-fiction), Tracy Kidder acknowledges that the death of John—a young Haitian boy who’s rushed to Boston for emergency treatment—is a poignant symbol for the value (and perhaps, ultimate futility) of Dr. Paul Farmer’s life’s work. John suffers from a rare facial cancer that can’t be treated in Haiti, and as a result, Farmer’s nonprofit spends tens of thousands of dollars to fly John to better facilities in the United States. But in the end, John dies in Boston—the plane flight and extra care had no effect on the eventual outcome. John’s fate could be representative of the fate of Haiti itself: although Farmer devotes huge amounts of time and money to improving conditions in the country, nothing he does can change the fact that Haiti is an impoverished country, in which there will always be sick, suffering people. Even so, John and his treatment could also be considered a symbol of the ultimate value of Farmer’s project. Even if he can’t save John’s life, Farmer can improve John’s living conditions in his final moments—as a nurse puts it, letting John die in a place where there aren’t flies on his face. Even if Farmer doesn’t eliminate the root cause of his patients’ suffering, there’s value in reducing some of the suffering.
Mountains Beyond Mountains
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The timeline below shows where the symbol John’s Treatment appears in Mountains Beyond Mountains. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...2000, Kidder explains, PIH flies a Haitian child named John from Cange to Boston for treatment for a rare facial cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The process of diagnosing John requires several trips... (full context)