Published on Dec. 3, 2018 in

Dr. Kathleen Clanon said she felt like a soldier in the middle of a war during her early career treating HIV and AIDS patients. Death surrounded her. At the peak of the epidemic, 200 patient lives were lost in a year — about one person every other day.

She dreamed of a day when, instead of struggling to help her AIDS patients live a bit longer, she could simply remind them to take their medicine. And over the course of three decades, she’s witnessed that remarkable transition of HIV and AIDS going from newly discovered and a death sentence, to completely manageable.

“Now as long as people take their medicine, they can essentially live a life as if they never had HIV. It’s a dream come true. My patients and I marvel together.”

Dr. Clanon started at Oakland’s Alameda Health System-Highland Hospital in 1984. Her patients were mostly young, gay, black men from East Oakland, and they were stigmatized because of their diagnosis. True to its mission, Alameda Health System has always been the place vulnerable populations can turn to for quality health care, regardless of the condition or the stigma surrounding it. These HIV and AIDS patients, and the lives that were cut short, motivated Dr. Clanon through the heartbreak and loss.

“It was their stories that kept me going. I had a sense of wanting to show up for them, bearing witness to their lives. Theirs were stories that were worth being told.”

This connection with her patients, and the trauma of death around her, made it difficult to connect with others. She didn’t take vacation days. She worked all the time. And when she did spend time with people outside the hospital, it was hard to answer questions about her workdays when far too often they were filled with difficult news about patients she cared for deeply.

During those earlier days of HIV and AIDS treatment, Dr. Clanon knew the risks of the virus and how to avoid contracting it from patients. But she would still have recurring dreams of looking in the mirror and seeing her face, gaunt and covered in dark lesions.

Her connections at work helped sustain her through this period. “Emotionally there was a strong sense of camaraderie among my colleagues and my patients, and their friends and family. I had the feeling that I was a part of something very big — that I was a part of a group of people getting through something scary, a community working together.”

Early on in her career, the rewards of her job were more complex. “In the early days, the first decade, pretty much everyone was getting sicker and dying. The reward was helping reunite a patient with someone they cared about or helping them get some particular thing done.”

After 1996, when antiretroviral treatments helped turn the tide on the number of AIDS cases in the United States and helped more people live longer, there were new life achievements to celebrate. Patients would live to graduate from college. She witnessed a wave of people getting married when it became legal.

And as treatments allowed those infected to avoid passing it on to others, the number of babies born to men and women whom she treated bloomed — and now stands between 50 and 75. “Seeing people able to have those normal life transitions… I’ve never lost how incredible it’s been to see that in my lifetime.”

Dr. Clanon’s career has shaped her life in major ways. It showed her how important whole person care is. “Medicine tends to stick to medicine. But early on in treating HIV and AIDS, the support came from patient’s friends — taking care of pets, cooking food, nursing each other through the night.”

And it shaped her personally. “I feel I carry on the people I’ve lost, about 1,000 of them. I have a strong sense of their lives, the fact that not many people knew them, that they didn’t get to live their lives. They’ve given me a sense of purpose. I want to make their lives count.”