Doctors are long-term survivors who also suffered

Back at the International AIDS Conference in Geneva in 1998, I met a gay doctor from Florida who talked about his experiences early in the HIV epidemic.

He had just graduated from med school when suddenly all these young gay men were getting sick. He took care of them—some were friends and acquaintances—but found himself alone, with many providers wanting nothing to do with his patients. When he ran into other doctors in the hospital, they would cross the hallway to avoid him.

I still think about that doctor, and how he suffered because he tended to AIDS patients.

Recently, Dr. Thomas Klein, of Klein & Slotten Medical Associates here in Chicago, a longtime clinic with a large number of HIV patients, made a presentation where I work just as we prepared to go to press with the January/February 2015 issue focusing on long-term survivors.

Although he was speaking on today’s effective therapies, Dr. Klein opened his presentation by saying, “The first patient we saw with HIV, in 1982, was on a ventilator before we knew he had PCP. It was really terrible times.”

Suddenly I realized that we should honor the providers as well, not just the people with HIV who survived the dark early days. Doctors, too, are long-term survivors who suffered trauma (as did many other medical providers, including nurses and pharmacists).

Similar to the stories we included in this issue, Dr. Klein told about finding out that a patient’s partner, HIV-positive for 25 years, had stopped taking his medications a year and a half ago.

“I said, ‘Tell me he didn’t see people die? It’s not a quick and easy death,’” Dr. Klein told his patient. He talked with the partner and the man is now going back on medications.

Like Dr. Klein and the Florida doctor from the conference, Dr. Daniel S. Berger, founder of Chicago’s NorthStar Medical Center, was a young, gay doctor just out of med school when the epidemic began. He also gravitated toward serving the gay men who were becoming ill. Like the other doctors, he also tended to all the women and straight men infected with the same disease. Still, his patients were overwhelmingly gay men, and being from the same, relatively small gay community, many were his friends. NorthStar not only served as a clinic with a large number of HIV patients, making its doctors experts, but also became a center of clinical trials bringing cutting edge care—and hope—to its patients.

I asked Dan if he would give me a quote for this piece, and this is what he e-mailed me.

"I often go about my day living within the shadows of the many friends and patients that are gone. During the early days the many patients who were sick had to be seen by me quite often and as a result, I formed attachments with many of them, though not always smart for a physician—but what else could I do? Those patients and friends inspired and shaped me and my work, and it's rare if a day goes by that I don't reflect on those times. 

"One of my closest friends and patient was Drew Badanish. He was the graphics designer who had the vision to transform Positively Aware into a magazine from a mere newsletter (1991/92). He called himself an ‘AIDS warrior’ and as an AIDS activist never hesitated to speak his mind in public. During the course of his shortened life, we had many acclimated and visceral discussions about controversial AIDS issues of the day. He also helped me with the graphics for many of my presentations at community forums. It is his and other spirits that I feel have been with me and watching over me, for which I am eternally grateful.”

Dan added that Drew’s picture still sits on his desk at Northstar, “as a reminder.”

What could it have been like for doctors, gay and straight, to lose so many young patients? “And they were friends,” Dr. Klein told me after his talk, echoing Dan. “We were gay men and they became our friends. We saw people whose families weren’t there for them at all.”

These doctors saw young people in their 20s and 30s who they couldn’t save. How painful that must have been.

Some patients, thankfully, survived.

“One of the reasons we’re still doing this,” Dr. Klein told me, speaking of himself and his clinic partner, Dr. Ross Slotten, “is because of the long-term survivors doing well. How thrilling it is.”