Ian Lipkin describes himself as a “microbe hunter,” because he’s studied and worked on numerous infectious diseases over his many years in the lab (and not just the virus he created for “Contagion”). But while Ian always knew that he wanted to do research, in his younger days he also practiced medicine. Young Dr. Lipkin And in the early 1980’s, before one horrific disease even had the name that we know it by now, Ian worked with patients whose condition filled some other doctors with such fear that they wouldn’t even treat them:
“When I was a neurology resident at University of California, San Francisco, I was running a clinic that was devoted to taking care of people who had Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Disease (GRIDD), as it was then called, which we now know to be a precursor to HIV/AIDS. And I had this open clinic, people could come, there was no charge for doing so. And I received a message from a man in Dale, Colorado, who thought he had multiple sclerosis.”
When the man came to Ian’s clinic, it turned out that he didn’t have multiple sclerosis, but he was, in fact, deteriorating right before Ian’s eyes:
“What he had kept changing. So he would begin to lose sensation and then strength in the fingers and hands and one side of his face and another. I went off to go to the bathroom, and by the time I came back he was different again. He was changing so rapidly that he was at risk for respiratory failure or something of that nature.”
After doing a spinal tap on the man (“the number of inflammatory cells was the highest I’d ever seen”), Ian, with little or no precedent, decided that the best course was to perform a procedure called a “plasma freeze.” The problem was finding and being able to use the necessary equipment with his patient:
“I contacted people in the hospital and tried to find somebody who would let us use their equipment. And no one would do so, because they said this was a gay man, he probably has non-A non-B hepatitis (which is what we now call hepatitis C), and he’s going to contaminate our equipment. So I started making phone calls around the city, and I found a man who had just purchased a machine that could be used for this purpose. And he was trying to pay off his note, because he paid a fortune for this thing. And he said, ‘I’ll take him, but you have to put in the needles, because I’m not going anywhere near him.’”
Ian, fearing for his patient’s life but not his own, did put the needles into his patient. And he continued to treat the man – and many others – on an ongoing basis, with as much success as was medically possible at the time:
“So I treated him three times with plasma freezes and he stabilized, and he lived for another two years. Ultimately, he succumbed to HIV/AIDS, because there was no good drug therapy at that point. I was able to extend his life, though, and he was able to go back to work. And he had a good life until he ultimately succumbed.”
Now, of course, HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence that it once was. And given that it’s also so much better understood, medical personnel are no longer fearful about working with these patients. However, at the start – before we knew very much about it at all – there had to be some folks who were braver than the rest, who were willing to take the risks required to treat people with HIV/AIDS and to learn about the disease so that better treatments could eventually be developed.
So thank you, Ian, for being brave.