In 2009 the Pitt Men’s Study celebrated its 25th anniversary. On that occasion, clinic coordinator Bill Buchanan gave a speech to volunteers and community representatives, the text of which is presented below.
In the early 1980s a new, puzzling, and deadly illness led a young gay doctor to approach a young straight microbiologist at Pitt and convince him that something needed to be done. They enlisted the help of the local gay establishment and started doing research without so much as a staff or a budget.
When the National Institutes of Health announced a grant for five research centers across the country, they applied, and soon Pittsburgh joined San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore to form the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. The doctor and the microbiologist then hired a staff and enrolled over 1,000 men, many of whom are in this room.
Those researchers and those men braved fear, confusion, mistrust, discrimination, and an uncaring and even hostile government in order to make a difference and save lives. We are forever in your debt. Well done.
The causative agent, a virus, was discovered and soon an antibody test was developed. When the Pitt Men’s Study began testing the blood it had collected, nearly one in four of those first recruits were infected at the time they joined, a startling statistic for what was thought to be a “low incidence” area.
Back then, the HIV drugs we had were ineffective in the long term, and while we could prevent or treat the many and bizarre illnesses that manifested in those with AIDS, we ultimately couldn’t keep up with the continuous assaults on increasingly frail bodies, and we lost people. The death toll skyrocketed – in the 1990s we were losing about five study volunteers every month, and the rate continued to rise with no end in sight.
Yet hopeless as it seemed, men continued to come in, give blood and other samples, and bare their lives for nothing more than the hope – with no guarantee – that it might one day do some good. I watched people come to the clinic so sick they were barely able to walk, but they were determined not to go down without a fight. And those either not yet ill or not infected did not waiver in their commitment in spite of the deepening gloom. We are forever in your debt. Well done.
By the late 90s, we finally had treatments that made the first real impact on the survival of those with HIV. Some thought that our work was done, yet you still kept coming in. And thank goodness you did because it turned out that the fight was far from over – there were, and sadly still are, so many hurdles to overcome. And more of you joined, and ultimately nearly 4,000 of you had participated in Pittsburgh, some from great distances, some in the face of burn out, some despite increasingly busy schedules and family obligations or ill health or age. We are forever in your debt. Well done.
There is still so much more to learn, much of it pertinent to HIV disease; but now more than ever, so much more of it pertinent to anyone – breakthroughs in immunology that may well help us cure illnesses such as cancer; and a greater understanding of numerous cardiovascular, renal, pulmonary, and metabolic conditions, just to name a few.
You help us investigate these. You help us save and enrich lives around the globe. We need your help to reach out to our children and instill in them the pride, self respect, and knowledge to take care of themselves and avoid that virus that has caused us so much grief. You will help us find ways to stop HIV from disproportionately affecting the African-American community as it now does – we cannot abandon our brothers and sisters regardless of race, gender, gender identity, or sexual preference. We have much to do – and YOU are an integral part of this effort.
Without you this study is nothing. The Pitt Men’s Study is not the researchers, nor the clinicians, nor the statisticians, nor the data managers, nor the laboratory staff. No, the Pitt Men’s Study is YOU, each and every unique and wonderful you. YOU have made the progress, YOU have saved and enriched lives, YOU have made the difference, YOU are the heroes of the era of HIV disease. Never sell yourself short, never think that you don’t contribute – without each and every last one of YOU none of this would have been possible.
My dream is to retire to San Francisco someday. I’d like to think that I will live to see AIDS cured, but I am not sure that is going to happen in the next three decades or so. But I know with your continued efforts, you will get us ever closer to that goal, and one day, it will be achieved. And as I sit on the beach listening to the waves crash on the sand, and as I watch the sun slowly sink below the horizon, and as I feel that brisk Pacific breeze brush my cheeks, I will think back and remember – not the struggle, not the anguish, not the frustration – no, I will think back and remember each and every one of your wonderful and beautiful faces, and I will give thanks that I had the unparalleled privilege to get to know and work with YOU.
Until then, let’s continue to work together for our sake, for the sake of our loved ones, and for the sake of future generations who count on us to try to leave the world a little better than we found it. God bless each and every one of you, and thank you. Well done.
– William Buchanan