On World AIDS Day, I want to share the story of how I became an “AIDS doctor.” Every day, I am thankful for the rich opportunities that life has given me. I was the first child in my family to attend a university. I succeeded in becoming a doctor and a medical school lecturer. And I recently started a new chapter of my career focused on finding new and better ways to prevent HIV transmission.
I am thankful for many things, but above all, I am thankful just to be alive. My mother gave birth to me more than 50 years ago in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. It was a difficult time for her. My father passed away while she was pregnant with me, leaving her with five young children to raise. Then I arrived, two months premature.
At that time, my chances of survival were slim. But my mother was a remarkable woman who did everything in her power to make sure that I lived. She practiced kangaroo care, hugging me close to her chest for weeks to incubate me with her body heat. And because I was born so early, my health was fragile throughout my early years. Until I was nine, I spent many days in clinics battling numerous infectious diseases, including pneumonia and malaria. Because I was in the clinic so often, I became fascinated with doctors and nurses. I watched their work with growing curiosity and admiration.
Then, suddenly, my health turned around. I started growing, and I didn’t stop for some time. Eventually, I grew to 6 feet 3 inches in height and more than 200 pounds. I became a starter for the University of Dakar basketball team. And I also became a medical student because I decided that it was my turn to provide the care and treatment doctors had given me so that other children could have a chance at a healthy, productive life.
Eventually, I became a physician specializing in infectious diseases. I had grown up seeing people around me getting sick and dying from totally preventable illnesses, and I spent my early years as a doctor working on new strategies to reduce the incidence of tetanus, measles, typhoid fever, bacterial diarrhea, malaria, and other infections. One of my proudest achievements was working with my colleagues to introduce new training for midwives in rural communities that helped to reduce the incidence of tetanus among newborns from hundreds of cases each year to just a handful.
Then, in the early 1990s, my field began to change when HIV emerged. After years of writing prescriptions to treat simple infections, I found myself powerless to help patients struggling with the new virus. That situation changed in 1998, when the first antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) arrived, which allowed me to give my patients a new chance at life.
But the arrival of HIV medicines was just part of the challenge in responding to AIDS. We soon realized that very few doctors outside Dakar knew how to administer ARVs effectively, adapt treatment regimens when drug resistance developed, or adopt strategies to ensure that patients stayed on treatment. To address these challenges, I worked with my colleagues to make our hospital a center of excellence for treating HIV, and we created a national mentoring program that sent experts out to rural areas to train doctors and nurses on best practices in diagnosis, care, and treatment.
Three years after we started, HIV care was available in hospitals across Senegal, and sick patients no longer had to travel hundreds of miles in the care of loved ones to the capital. The model that we pioneered was so successful that it was soon replicated across west Africa.
World AIDS Day is just one of the 365 days each year when we need to stay dedicated to the fight against HIV. But it provides a special opportunity to remember those who made progress against HIV possible. I thank my mother, who taught me that every day is precious and that the greatest gift that we can give is life. Without her commitment and her example, none of my work would have been possible. I am also thankful for all of the physicians I met through our mentorship program and the African Network of AIDS Physicians who to this day are tirelessly working to treat and prevent new cases of HIV.
My mother and the physicians I worked alongside in Africa as part of the African Network of AIDS Physicians are my heroes in the fight against AIDS. Who is yours?