Film tells inspiring story of Partners in Health, reveals harsh realities of universal health care

By Samantha Brandbergh

When a team of young revolutionaries comes together with the goal of bringing health care and resources to poverty-stricken countries, great things can happen.

The documentary “Bending the Arc,” which was shown on Feb. 12 in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater, tells the story of Paul Farmer, Jim Young Kim and Ophelia Dahl — founders of Partners in Health — and their diligent efforts to fight deadly diseases in countries within Africa and South America.

The screening was presented by the Health Studies Institute at Rider, which aims to connect the health-related majors, such as health care, health policy, health administration and health communication.

Michael Rich, who has worked with Partners in Health for 18 years and is currently researching two new tuberculosis drugs, introduced the film.

“Partners in Health is good in the sense that we only partner with the public sector,” he said. “We don’t go to a country and set up private health clinics; we actually go into the public health system. We also put social justice front and center.”

The documentary combined interviews with the doctors, patients and others involved in the team’s journey, archival footage depicting the current political climate and the public’s viewpoint on disease in developing countries.

“Bending the Arc” opens in Haiti in 1983, when Farmer and Dahl first met and connected over their passion for social justice and universal health care. Both “young and enthusiastic,” the pair learned “how not to deliver medical care” after seeing the long and winding lines at the village’s only health clinic. Farmer, who had dreamed of being a doctor since he was 12, eventually decided to attend Harvard Medical School in Boston, where he met Kim, the current president of the World Bank Group.

With the help of one of Boston’s most well-known philanthropists, Tom White, the team was able to build and open a clinic in Cange, Haiti. White’s money would later help pay for the medicine needed to treat patients with multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB).

While in medical school, the two would often fly from Boston to Haiti to treat patients on a Thursday — taking supplies and medicine from the hospital to “help the situation” — and return to the states on a Sunday.

In Haiti, it was reported that three people had died from tuberculosis, despite receiving the medicine to treat it. The team decided to take the blame off the patient, developing the accompaniment system, in which a member of the community would check up on patients to ensure they took their medication. This vastly improved the cure rates.

They were later encouraged to expand their efforts to South America, specifically Peru, where it was suspected 50 cases of MDRTB had developed, which were eventually cured. It was here where the team was joined by current Chief Medical Officer of Partners in Health Joia Mukherjee, who will be delivering a lecture at Rider on March 28 at 7 p.m. in the Cavalla Room.

“Without a war, you can’t win,” a patient said while receiving her treatment. “I want to be a good warrior.”

Later in the film, Kim is shown a video of a former patient and is moved by his transformation. The disease mainly attacks the lungs and is airborne, making it easy to transmit to those surrounding the infected.

“To think we almost let him die,” Kim said through tears.

Over the two years the team was in Peru, 85 percent of 75 patients were cured by the use of five to seven drugs, the film claimed.

Although those in the medical world doubted their findings, calling them “unsustainable,” the team pushed on after discovering the tuberculosis drugs weren’t patented, dropping the cost by 90 percent.

The documentary then fast forwards to 1999, when the team declared they had to “scrap together drugs” to help fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Again, the documentary showcased before-and-after photos of cured patients, including St. Ker, who said “the only thing I prepared was my will and coffin,” when he was still infected with the disease labeled an “automatic death sentence.” And again, after reporting their findings in a medical journal, they were denounced as “not proven” and “unsustainable.”

Realizing that government officials and health care figures weren’t taking the epidemics seriously, Farmer met with then-President George W. Bush, resulting in the creation of the Global Fund, which aimed to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, who made a pledge of $200 million.

Along the way, the team built and opened more clinics and hospitals, most recently a teaching hospital, just down the road from where Farmer and Dahl met in college.

While she had always been appreciative of the United States’ access to health care, freshman business administration major Lillian DeMarco hopes the film can bring other students some insight.

“We take our health care system for granted, and we don’t realize how bad other countries have it,” she said. “I just hope it helps Americans see how good we have it.”

During the Q&A portion of the presentation, Rich emphasized that not everyone involved in the fight for universal health care has to have a medical background.

“There’s a huge amount of work [in Partners in Health for] economists. We write software, create electronic medical records for these patients, so we need managers, accountants, logisticians, you name it,” he said. “We feel like we’re really a team and everyone has key parts; we really need to depend on everyone, not just the doctors.”

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