When Wafaa El-Sadr first encountered people suffering from AIDS in 1982, there were fewer than 5,000 known cases of the disease. In just a few years, the annual rate of infection would hit 130,000. If there was a ground floor for the epidemic, El-Sadr was on it.
To help address the crisis, the Egyptian-born doctor imagined a simple revolution in AIDS treatment: Create a clinic with a comfortable, home-away-from-home feel; train doctors to listen to, not just talk at, their patients; and incorporate patients’ day-to-day reality into their care. When she took these principles into a clinic in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, the six-month treatment completion rate jumped from 11 percent to 89 percent in a single year.
All of El-Sadr’s talents, passions, and energy are now distributed between two vastly different communities: her clinic in Harlem and across a network of treatment facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22 million people have HIV. The International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs, a Columbia University-based organization that El-Sadr founded, encourages caregivers to envelop patients as though they were a medical foster family–one that might include a nutritionist and a social worker in addition to a doctor and a nurse. To date, hundreds of clinics spread across 14 African countries are using this paradigm. In Tanzania alone, 40,000 people receive care at 220 sites connected to El-Sadr’s organization.
We discovered Wafaa El-Sadr thanks to a profile in Saudi Aramco World. In the piece, she explains the source of the fulfillment she feels even after decades of treating victims of AIDS and HIV: “Part of the biggest joy for me as a physician is the interaction with the patient. Because of how profoundly HIV affected people’s lives, because of its isolating nature, the tragedies and the triumphs, it motivates a very special and deep connection with patients.” In 2008, El-Sadr was a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award. She speaks eloquently about her work in a MacArthur video.
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