Marking World AIDS Day with oral histories from the collections

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On December 1, health care practitioners, among others, are recognizing World AIDS Day. The goal is to bring awareness to the fact that AIDS and HIV remain a global pandemic. This year’s theme is “Know Your Status.”

World AIDS Day BadgeFor some historical perspective on the AIDS crisis, we had look at a few of the 74 interviews that make up the Physicians and AIDS oral history project housed in the RBML. About the project,

To construct a collective biography of the early AIDS doctors, Ronald Bayer, Columbia University professor of public health, and Gerald Oppenheimer, associate professor of clinical public health, turned to oral history. After extensive preparation, interviewing, and editing, they published AIDS Doctors: Voices from the Epidemic, an historical account of the epidemic through the eyes of the doctors who experienced it.

One doctor interviewed for the project was Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr. Dr El-Sadr was on the front lines at the start of the crisis practicing medicine in Harlem and helping to establish one of the first holistic clinics. It’s a wide-ranging interview that’s unique in its focus on the early stages of the epidemic, physicians’ initial confusion and frustration in only treating the symptoms of an as-yet-undefined disease and skepticism’s impact on low-income and minority communities in recognizing the epidemic.

When asked what Dr. El-Sadr learned from her time treating patients with HIV/AIDS, she said, “Oh, boy, it’s tough. I think it’s about people. I [have] come back to people and just the strength, and also about not giving up. It’s just not giving up on them. There is something in there. And accepting people. I think that would be it. And listening to them, too.”