Spotlight on Health

AIDS epidemic changed how doctor practiced, treated patients

By Danielle Milley, OMA Public Affairs

As a medical student, Dr. Cheryl Wagner thought she would “save lives and stamp out disease,” but as a new physician practicing in downtown Toronto at the start of the AIDS epidemic her reality was far different than what she’d imagined.

Dr. Wagner was attending medical school at McMaster University in the early 1980s when AIDS was first clinically observed in the United States, but yet just four years later 60 per cent of her patients were dealing with the disease. It was a challenging, exhausting and remarkable experience for the doctor who came to medicine in Toronto via rural Alabama and Quaker-run peace studies on an island in Eastern Ontario.

“I saw a way to meld issues around health and social justice with science,” she said of her decision to go back to medical school years after earning her pre-med degree in Ohio.

Her first experience as a physician was as a fly-in doctor in Northern Ontario but not long into that experience a call came from Toronto to take over the practice of a GP who had been diagnosed with AIDS.  It was here she would begin her ongoing work with patients struggling with AIDS.

The disease was still so new, she and her patients were learning together. She recalls patients would bring in articles from medical journals with new studies she hadn’t yet had a chance to read because they were only days old.

“It broke down many of the traditional patient-physician barriers,” she said. “We were both starting from the same place. We had to learn together.”

Dr Wagner2

Her belief that she would “save lives and stamp out disease” was altered given her new reality. Instead she formed a deeper bond with her patients, some of whom are still a part of her life.

“It was not just about the medications you can offer, because we didn’t have any of those, it was working with your patient and the family and the community,” she said. “You learned medicine isn’t just about the drugs you can give, it’s really about the bond you have with your patients.”

There was a lot of loss, but Dr. Wagner said there wasn’t time to grieve.  People remark to her it must have been so depressing, but to those on the inside it was different.

“What was missing from the outside was we had other colleagues, we had specialists in the hospital who were so supportive,” she said. “And we had the patient community who was so remarkable.”

She saw the community come together to fight; they accomplished such wonderful things as the creation of Casey’s House.

Today, the treatment of patients with AIDS is vastly different.

“With 29 available drugs, treating HIV is now the easy part of my job.  Much of my work now involves people from vulnerable populations, women and refugees,” Dr. Wagner said. “The challenge is supporting patients who come out of abusive and chaotic situations, which is why community programs are so important. “

Dr. Wagner’s work in the community was recognized with a 2016 YWCA Woman of Distinction award.  Dr. Wagner was also just named as the Family Physician of the Year for the Toronto area by the Ontario College of Family Physicians.

“It’s quite overwhelming to be recognized by both the community and my peers. For me being a physician is about seeing your patients through the good times, and bad times, offering comfort and care.  It’s what physicians do. It is part of our training.  So to have the spotlight put on what I consider my passion, my career, my commitment to patients is humbling”

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This article originally appeared in our monthly e-newsletter, Spotlight on Health.
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Posted on December 1, 2016 in newsletter

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