April 28, 2015
Who has HIV?
I mean, of those infected with HIV, who are they? I learned: 50% gay males, 30% people who share needles, 20% are mostly partners and spouses of those two groups.
I am sure many of my readers are more familiar with the current state of HIV virus science than I am. Memories of the movie Philadelphia and The Dallas Buyers Club are the closest I’ve come to being ‘close to the issue’. A smart person pointed me to Dr. John Gill who heads up the Southern Alberta Clinic (that’s what the sign on the door says) at the Sheldon Chumir Centre in Calgary.
But before all that, in the beginning, he was the child of a stay at home mom, his dad was an accountant in Worcestershire, UK. He has one older sister. His excellence in school – an early-nerd was focused on a strong interest in history, literature and archaeology. His socially liberal and fiscally conservative father suggested that it might be challenging to make a good living as an archaeologist and suggested John pursue something more productive. Tennis and squash were his school-days sports passions.
His considerable academic credential acquisition involved an opportunity study in North America – and University of Manitoba and University of Alberta stints were interwoven with his increased interest in infectious diseases, the influence/mentoring of Dr. Lorne Tyrell – all led to him being in the right place at right time; at the University of Calgary when HIV and AIDS scares came to everyone’s attention, including the Alberta government in 1985-86 as the clinic was established. Heading it up seemed like a great opportunity to put his skills and methodology to work. Fast forward to today – a-pill-a-day and virtually normal life expectancy for people with HIV. And mining thirty years of incredibly detailed health records supports the ongoing treatment research.
The state of HIV, according to Dr. John … he admits to 290 peer reviewed publications on HIV infection. This guy is smart! An admitted nerd who was really good in school. Lucky us. Oh … and he’s a really nice guy. Unfortunately, he can only be your physician if you have HIV.
I came away convinced the citizens of southern Alberta with HIV are in great hands, compassionate hands, skillful hands and it seems he swings a mean tennis racquet too.
Perhaps I’ve been stereotypically ignorant – but I think we tend to not research things that aren’t near our lives, though I’ve now been ‘informed’ about the reality of HIV in Calgary and southern Alberta from its most credible source.
While I was primarily there to interview John Gill, the reality was that I was there to get a layman’s understanding of the state of HIV in our community.
As I strode through the door, into an empty waiting room – I was greeted by staff who had not an ounce of anything but cheerfulness and helpfulness. I announced I was there to see Dr. Gill for my 2:00PM appointment – and soon he appeared to greet me. Clearly it was only me who was a bit uncomfortable being there.
I would describe him as charming, disarming and entirely entertaining. Not the brand/variety of ‘serious talk’ I was expecting.
His new area of concern, investigation: the incidence of violence and abuse among HIV patient populations … and as he explained that 30% of people with HIV have come from abusive relationships at some point – it strikes me there is another one of the peer review papers in the works. He displays himself as an intensely curious man, fascinated by his work, by the science and his clinic’s extraordinary successes in leading this field. Little wonder I suppose that he’s been its leader since its beginning twenty-five years ago.
What has contributed most to your success? “A secure safe family upbringing. Stable family. Fabulous education. Having two fantastic countries I’ve called home.”
What has held you back? “Limiting myself to doing what I do well. I don’t overcommit past my breaking point. Recognizing where my limits are”
My biggest takeaway – and this really stunned me, is that 86% of southern Alberta residents with HIV are in treatment. Their regimen is a pill-a-day, provided free by the Government of Alberta through Dr. Gill’s program. Not everyone gets the same medication, mostly because of other medical conditions they have – but whichever medication they are on, the complicated ‘cocktails’ of the past are now just a pill-a-day.
What shocked me more – and this is obviously a concern of Dr. Gill’s is that 14% are not in treatment. That struck me as odd, since his explanation is that ‘when in treatment’ patients are at very low risk of infecting anyone. I wondered why anyone would refuse. Dr. Gill explained that within that 14% are people who don’t believe the science, people with mental health concerns, homeless folks, people who don’t feel ill. About 7% were in treatment and have left ‘treatment’. About 7% are in denial, scared or stigmatized.