I wanted to share this appeal from Ophelia Dahl and Paul Farmer of Partners In Health, one of my favorite charities, which provides health care to the world’s poorest communities. The letter eloquently addresses the “compassion fatigue” we may feel when contemplating global poverty and injustice. Consider making a donation today.
“When a child steps out in front of a moving car, someone will snatch the child back to the sidewalk. It’s not only a kind person who’d do that, not only the kind of person they honor with statues and memorial plaques. Anyone would pull a child out of the path of the car. But here, many people have been run down, and many pass by, doing nothing. Is that because there are so many suffering people? Shouldn’t there be more help when there’s more suffering? There’s less help. Even kind people walk past, doing nothing, and they’re just as kind as they were before.”
– from The World’s One Hope, a poem by Bertolt Brecht translated by Tony Kushner
The feeling of being overwhelmed by the seemingly limitless suffering that is present in our world does not go away with greater exposure. It might seem as if such vast and unjust misery were inevitable if we didn’t know of so many heroes among us who have literally and metaphorically pulled children out of danger. We are often reminded of the painful truth Brecht describes as it seems to be innately human to feel powerless and paralyzed in the face of incomprehensible numbers like nine million children dying before the age of five each year or half a million women dying in childbirth annually.
In those dark moments, however, we find the inspiration to act by reminding ourselves of the individual people whose lives have been transformed through our work and of how their personal stories, amplified for the world through partnerships with a renowned university, a leading teaching hospital, and ministries of health, have changed policies and realigned priorities on a national and even global scale. Not one of us, at Partners In Health or elsewhere, has to look long or far for stories that will inspire action. In fact, the stories frequently come looking for us.
On a recent trip to Haiti, we spotted a group of people carrying a woman—pregnant, enervated, and in great pain—along the road. We stopped and learned that she, Rosette, had been in distressed labor for over twenty hours. Members of her family, themselves undernourished and barefoot, were carrying her to the nearest health center. But with Rosette’s exhausted state and the distance before them, it was clear that mother and baby’s lives were at risk. After a quick roadside exam and an urgent phone call, we were able to connect Rosette and her family to a complete system of health care that we have been strengthening for almost twenty-five years. An ambulance arrived to take her to a facility where she received comprehensive obstetrical care, regardless of her ability to pay, and where she had access to surgical services if she needed an emergency cesarean section.
We at PIH, and you as our supporters, have the privilege of being able to use compassion strategically, not only to save individual lives like Rosette’s and her son’s, but also to make those same services available on a far wider scale. For instance, two years ago—buoyed by our success providing maternal health services—Dr. Raôul Raphaël, the head of the Ministry of Health for Haiti’s Central Department, proclaimed, “As Health Commissioner of this region, it is my pledge that all pregnant women will have free access to prenatal care. And we will work to increase access to free Cesarean sections, as it is a life-saving operation that cannot be sold as you would sell a side of beef or a goat.” This is a statement that has since led the Haitian national government, with support from the World Health Organization and the Canadian government, to launch a program to improve access to comprehensive maternal health care, including pre- and post-natal care, labor and delivery, and family planning services.
We are proud to share this story with you as evidence that your investment in Partners In Health presents the rare opportunity to not only pull a child to the curb, but also to build a sidewalk and a pedestrian crossing and to employ a crossing guard so that hundreds of children won’t be run down in the future. This year, more than ever, we ask that you stop yourself from assuming that your contribution—large or small—won’t make a difference in reducing the world’s poverty and disease. As Brecht suggests, each and every one of us would stop to do whatever we could to help save Rosette’s life, but if any one of us decides not to act because of the enormity of the problems we are trying to address, we risk losing all of the progress we have made to date.
Please help us sustain and grow our work by making a gift to Partners In Health this holiday season. Your action allows us to fulfill the commitment that is the heart and soul of our mission: to do “whatever it takes to make our patients well—just as we would do if a member of our family or we ourselves were ill.” For that, you have our profound gratitude.
Ophelia Dahl and Paul Farmer