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College leader honored as hero for her AIDS work

From the July/August 2000 ACP-ASIM Observer, copyright 2000 by the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

By Ingrid Palmer

If you ask Donna E. Sweet, FACP, to describe herself, she uses words like "busy, dedicated and hardworking," but she would never call herself a hero.

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In March, however, the AMA used exactly that term to describe the Wichita, Kan., AIDS specialist. At its annual leadership conference, the AMA identified Dr. Sweet and four other physicians as "heroes in medicine" who embody the ideals of a new awards program that will begin next year.

Dr. Sweet, Chair of the College's Board of Governors, was chosen for the honor because of her leadership in confronting AIDS issues and her care for patients with the disease, according to D. Ted Lewers, FACP, chair of the AMA Board of Trustees. As part of its Pride in the Profession Awards, he said, the AMA and the Pfizer Medical Humanities Initiative will honor physicians "who represent the best in us all and embody our values: leadership, service, excellence, integrity and ethical behavior."

Dr. Sweet certainly embodies those traits. In addition to running her Wichita practice, where she currently treats about 550 HIV/AIDS patients, she is the principal investigator of the Kansas AIDS Education and Training Center, educating health care workers throughout the region about the disease and training them to care for HIV-infected patients.

Every six weeks, Dr. Sweet travels through rural Kansas by small plane and car "so that rural patients have access to an AIDS specialist without having to drive inordinate distances," she said. She also takes on the role of advocate for her patients by speaking about AIDS policy both locally and nationally.

"Being able to help people who feel like nobody is really on their side is very rewarding," she said. "I help people understand that this disease is a significant lifestyle change, but it's not a death sentence."

Dr. Sweet's medical practice welcomes all new HIV and AIDS patients, regardless of their ability to pay for care. She also works to raise funds for treatment and medication for those affected by the disease, something she considers one of her biggest challenges. "My credo is that if somebody's smart enough to get tested and know they're positive, we should be able to give them services," she said. (It costs approximately $16,000 per year just for outpatient drugs.)

AIDS treatment has come a long way since the disease was initially described in 1982. In 1985, AIDS patients had a six-month survival rate; now, with proper medication and treatment, they may be able to live productive lives indefinitely, Dr. Sweet said. "There are things we can do to improve the quality and quantity of their lives," she said.

Because Dr. Sweet works in the Midwest, funding is especially hard to come by. "People say it isn't as big of a problem [here] as it is in New York or Los Angeles," she said, "but in some ways it's a little harder to deal with because we don't have the resources that other places do."

Despite financial obstacles and grueling 80-hour work weeks, Dr. Sweet said she finds her work very rewarding. "I'm doing something out of the ordinary for a population that a lot of people haven't paid much attention to," she said. "You see how young people face this kind of a problem on a day-in, day-out basis, doing things that I don't know if I could do in terms of the medicine, pain and suffering. To watch them go through all of this with smiles on their faces is amazing, and it touches me every day."

For more information on the Pride in the Profession Awards, contact the awards secretariat at 202-785-1391.

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