October 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
GW administrator reflects on HIV/AIDS epidemic
Jeffrey Akman, George Washington University Hospital, gay news, Washington Blade

Dr. Jeffrey Akman, dean of George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. (Photo courtesy of George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.)

A prominent figure in the fight against HIV/AIDS in D.C. will formally become the honorary chair of administrative medicine at George Washington University next week.

Dr. Jeffrey Akman on Oct. 23 will be formally confirmed as the Bloedorn Chair of Administrative Medicine named in honor of former George Washington University School of Medicine Dean Walter Bloedorn who held the position from 1939-1957. Bloedorn also served as the George Washington University Hospital Medical Director from 1932-1957.

This appointment comes less than a year after the GW Board of Trustees appointed Akman as the vice president for health affairs and the dean of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“To me it’s the best job I could ever have,” Akman told the Washington Blade during a recent interview.

A native of Baltimore, Akman enrolled in the GW doctoral program in 1977 after he graduated from Duke University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1981 reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS — Akman graduated from GW’s M.D. program the same year. D.C. health officials observed the first known AIDS case in the city in 1983.

“We were really not prepared in terms of medical knowledge at that time,” Akman, who was a psychiatry resident at GW in 1983, recalled. “[We] really became aware of these young gay men coming into our hospital with this unknown awful illness that people were dying from very rapidly. I was just compelled to go into their rooms and sit and talk to them and find out what was going on.”

Researchers did not discover an AIDS anti-body test until 1985, but doctors in the Dupont Circle area soon began to refer their patients with the virus to GW Hospital once they diagnosed them with the virus after they came down with pneumocystis pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma or what Akman described as “some awful opportunistic infection.”

Akman said a significant portion of his work at the time was talking with his patients about death and dying, AIDS-related dementia and the stigma and fear and anxiety associated with the virus. He also began to receive referrals from infectious disease experts and other D.C. doctors as the number of people with AIDS continued to grow.

Some of Akman’s friends were also living with AIDS.

“We as a medical center we were incredibly responsive,” he told the Blade, discussing stories of doctors refusing to treat people with the virus and nurses and other hospital staff leaving trays of food outside the rooms of their patients with AIDS that emerged at the time. “That really was not the case here. There was a lot of work done internally… we really felt very good and had very strong connections in the community.”

Akman: I lost ‘a lot of friends’ to AIDS

Akman began to volunteer at Whitman-Walker Clinic in the mid-1980s as the epidemic in D.C. and elsewhere continued to expand. He served on the organization’s board of directors for 10 years – and he was president of it when Whitman-Walker opened the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center on 14th Street, N.W., in 1993.

Akman’s late partner, Steven Dixon, who was a physician and a fellow GW alum, chaired some of the organization’s first AIDS Walks. He and Akman also supported Food and Friends.

“I lost a lot of friends during the time,” Akman told the Blade. “All of us in our way kept lists of who died. We were caregivers. We were building a community response. We were fundraising.”

Fight against AIDS in D.C. is ‘moving in the right direction’

Akman, who is a member of the D.C. Mayor’s Commission on HIV/AIDS, spoke to the Blade a day after city officials released an annual report that documents the epidemic in the nation’s capital.

The report noted 15,056 D.C. residents – or 2.4 percent of Washingtonians – were living with HIV at the end of 2011. Men who have sex with men and heterosexual sexual contact were the two leading modes of transmission among newly diagnosed HIV cases, but the report found they decreased 46 percent from 2007.

The report also found the number of HIV/AIDS-related deaths in D.C. dropped from 425 in 2007 to 251 in 2011. And 80 percent of those who learned they were living with the virus in 2011 were linked to care within three months of their diagnosis.

“My sense is that we’re moving in the right direction,” Akman said. “The numbers of are definitely improving.”

Akman applauded the way he says D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has focused on getting people with HIV into treatment, expanding testing, training health care providers and ensuring there is not a waiting list in the nation’s capital for people who seek access to anti-retroviral drugs. He also praised the way former D.C. mayors responded to the epidemic within the context of the information, research and other resources that were available to them at the time.

“It feels like we’re turning the corner in the District of Columbia,” Akman said. “We’ve still got work to do, but the trends are all looking good.”

HIV/AIDS service providers with whom Akman worked applauded his recent appointment and his advocacy on behalf of people with the virus in D.C.

“Through his leadership of Whitman-Walker’s board of directors in the early 1990s, we witnessed firsthand his strong clinical leadership, his unwavering commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS in D.C. and his tremendous compassion for those most in need of high-quality health care,” Whitman-Walker CEO Don Blanchon told the Blade. “He is a servant leader in every sense of the word.”

“Jeff is a strong consensus builder on this campus, dedicated to the GW community and is committed to defining the future of medicine here at GW,” GW Hospital CEO Barry Wolfman said in a January press release that announced Akman’s appointment as the vice president for health affairs and dean of the university’s School of Medicine and Health Services

D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who was executive director of Whitman-Walker at the time Akman was president of the organization’s board, also applauded his appointment.

“This is somebody who is so substantive and so talented when he was a volunteer at Whitman-Walker,” Graham told the Blade. “He was a major player for us and was really so experienced and smart.”

Akman was the assistant dean for student educational policies at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences from 1991-2000. He chaired the university’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences from 2000-2010.

Akman told the Blade his new position allows him to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS he joined more than three decades ago.

“It gives me a brand new platform to deal with HIV/AIDS,” he said. “It’s a new platform for me to bring the school’s resources to bare.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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