30-Year Look-Back at AIDS: from funerals to baby showers

Dr. Cheryl Wagner is a primary care physician and a 2016 YWCA Toronto Woman of Distinction.

FaceofAIDS

Newsweek cover, August 1987

I was in Moose Factory Hospital on the edge of James Bay when the call came to take over the practice of a Toronto physician diagnosed with AIDS.

That was thirty years ago. The full impact of the epidemic was still not understood. The virus had only recently been identified.  Much was unknown. Fear was palpable. Discrimination was rampant.

The gay community was becoming organized, pushing for research and treatments. It was a terrible time; we had no idea how bad it would become.

As the eighties wore on, hopes of controlling the virus were extinguished. Almost everyone who was infected would succumb to illness and death. Fear and anger lived alongside tremendous love and compassion that arose within the gay community.

The nineties came without effective treatments, and more patients died. I carried death certificates in my purse.

By 1987, the first HIV-infected women showed up in my practice. Along with the isolation and stigma they experienced, many had acquired their diagnosis through sexual violence and were dealing with that trauma. On top of that, often their children were infected. The mothers were consumed with guilt for transmitting the virus while pregnant. Their chief concern was what would happen to their children after they died.

2016WOD-Cheryl MemeFA

The nineties came without effective treatments, and more patients died. I carried death certificates in my purse. I had a black dress ready for another funeral. My medical colleagues did the same.

Suddenly in 1996 things began to change.  A new class of drugs was available. When combined with the previous medications, patients began to improve clinically, at times dramatically. We called it the Lazarus effect.

Five years later, while giving a talk on Women and HIV, I remember remarking that I had attended more baby showers than funerals in the past year.

Today, we have 29 drugs to treat HIV. Patients can expect a near-normal life expectancy. A young woman in my practice who was infected in utero is healthy, working full time, and the mother of two healthy babies.

HIV in women is often the final symptom of poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and addiction.

Treating the HIV is now the easy part of my job. The tough part is giving women the social supports that they need, in the form of employment, safe housing, support to flee domestic violence.

Treating the HIV is now the easy part of my job. The tough part is giving women the social supports that they need, in the form of employment, safe housing, support to flee domestic violence. It is giving young women the tools to have healthy self-esteem as they navigate sexual relationships.

This is the extraordinary work that YWCA Toronto does. They are a true and essential partner in improving the lives and health of women and girls in the community. I am so grateful to be on their team.

To read Cheryl’s full bio, click here. Learn more about YWCA Toronto’s Women of Distinction Awards, taking place on May 26, 2016, at womenofdistinction.ca