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.
John’s Treatment Quotes in Mountains Beyond Mountains
“Well, this boy is a challenge. But I’ve cured sicker kids.” Serena laughed nervously. She said, “Well, now he’s in Man’s Greatest Hospital.” That was what Mass General people called the place, playing on its initials, MGH. Dr. Ezekowitz chuckled. “As soon as we start to believe that, we won’t be.” He turned to the young intern. “Isn’t that right? We can always do better, can’t we.”
“Can we not have him in a place where people are trained in palliation? Isn’t palliative care important? And a place where his mother can grieve in private instead of an open ward with flies all over her face?”
The next time I was in Cange, I asked Zanmi Lasante’s chief handyman, Ti Jean, what the people in the region were saying about the case. He told me that everyone talked about it. “And you know what they say? They say, ‘Look how much they care about us.’”
If you say, Well, I just think how much could have been done with twenty thousand dollars, you sound thoughtful, sensible, you know, reasonable, rational, someone you really want on your side. However, if you were to point out, But a young attending physician makes one hundred thousand dollars, not twenty, and that’s five times what it cost to try to save a boy’s life—that just makes you sound like an asshole. Same world, same numbers, same figures, same currency.