When the first reported cases of AIDS were identified on the East and West coasts of the U.S. in 1981, it was inevitable that the disease would find its way to Chicago. Life often imitates drama and with the theatrical onslaught of the AIDS crisis, heroes of the medical field were in high demand.
"I saw my first AIDS patient in 1982 at Cook County Hospital during my second month as a general physician," Dr. Renslow Sherer remembers. "He was a young, gay, African American man who could no longer do his daily six-mile run. At first we weren't exactly sure that it was AIDS, but then he had the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia ( PCP ) and the rest of his symptoms seemed to fit.
"Around the same time, another physician, Dr. Ron Sable, diagnosed a second patient and it was then that we decided to open the AIDS clinic at the Cook County Hospital. Of course we couldn't call it an AIDS clinic because of the stigma surrounding AIDS at the time."
Dr. Sherer and Dr. Sable ( not only co-founded Chicago's first AIDS clinic, the Sable/Sherer Clinic, but they were also among the founders of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago to raise critical, private funding for their facility. They made a good team: Sable ( who died at age 48 in December 1993 ) was openly gay, and Sherer is heterosexual.
Sherer is a leading authority on infectious diseases and one of Chicago's foremost AIDS doctors. Sherer attended medical school at Rush Medical College and did his residency at the Cook County Hospital. After his residency, Sherer became an internist at Cook County Hospital shortly before the appearance of AIDS in the U.S.
"It's hard to remember a career before HIV," said Sherer. "When I was in college it didn't exist yet, that we knew of. In those early days as an internist, we certainly saw diabetes and tuberculosis and many other infectious diseases but over all, Cook County was a very happy place to work. Dr. Sable really saw what had started on the West Coast and we tried to prepare ourselves for what was coming."
In their first year together, Sherer and Sable worked with 141 patients.
"Dr. Sable was very well respected within the LGBT community," Sherer recalled. "I suppose I was in the right place at the right time, or rather, the wrong place at the wrong time. The death and sickness were enough but having the media, the hype and the phobia gave a sort of drama to the issue, especially when you had [ President ] Reagan who would not openly talk about how HIV/AIDS. Though, nobody wants to go back to those early days, I will say that we had the most intimacy with our patients then."
Dr. Sable was an important person for LGBT-Chicago both politically and in the treatment of AIDS. Sable began as a Vietnam medic and became Cook County Hospital's first openly gay physician. His early AIDS activism helped secure crucial funding for people living with the virus.
Sable ran for Chicago City Council in 1987 as an openly gay candidate in the 44th Ward, against incumbent Ald. Bernie Hansen. He lost by a small percentage of votes. But Sable's campaign helped inspire a new generation of activists. Some of them helped organize Chicago's participation in the 1987 March on Washington, and some helped create of IMPACT, an LGBT political action committee. In 1988, Sable was selected to be an alternate delegate at the Democratic National Convention. Sable was also a strong believer in national healthcare and was a frequent volunteer physician at the Howard Brown Health Center. He ran a second time for alderman, in 1991, and again lost.
Sable came out as HIV positive in 1993, and a large public event was held at the South Shore Cultural Center, to celebrate his life while he was still living. He was weak, but was able to attend and hear the many stories about his importance. He died later that year, soon after he was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
"I miss him every day," Sherer said. "He was a fabulous person and if I wanted to go out on a limb, I'd say he was one of the best advocates for LGBT rights that this city has ever seen. He ran a strong campaign for alderman while setting up the AIDS clinic. He spent half his time treating AIDS patients and the other half standing up for their rights, he was very respectable. Working close with him was a pleasure because he drew in such a good group to work with, gay nurses and clinicians came out to help and that just gave us such an advantage and made us an even more credible resource. He was able to see clearly into political and controversial issues surrounding HIV. He was a tremendous doctor and friend."
As the 1980s drew to a close, major advancements were made in the study and treatment of AIDS. The Sable/Sherer clinic saw its cases expand from 141 in 1983 to nearly 3,000 by the early '90s. A third of all Chicagoans living with AIDS were patients of the Sable-Sherer clinic.
"Initially we were able to increase the lives of our patients from six months to a year, then AZT became available and added about another year to the lives of people with AIDS. I can't sugar-coat it though, those first clinicians saw harrowing days," said Sherer.
The Sable/Sherer clinic is now housed in the state-of-the-art Ruth Rothstein CORE Center. Dr. Sherer led the team of clinicians to design this nationally competitive ambulatory facility for HIV-related medicine. CORE Center opened in 1998 and offers a wide array of services from mental health to dentistry, drug rehabilitation, and pharmaceuticals.
"Anything to do with HIV is in this facility," boasts Sherer. "The Ryan White Care Act really helped us with resources."
After 25 years at the Cook County Hospital, Sherer left in 2003 to pursue AIDS research at an international level. In addition to being the Clinical Associate and the Program Chair of the section of Infectious Disease at the University of Chicago's hospital, he is the chairman of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Breakthrough Initiative on HIV/AIDS. Sherer is also a member of the Health and Human Services Guideline Panel on the Use of Antiretroviral Agents. Sherer has published many articles related to HIV/AIDS and remains an authority on the virus.
"Though the AIDS epidemic has crested and we are seeing the virus beginning to go into recession, the sad truth is that where new HIV contraction is increasing is within the 15-25 age group," Sherer said. "Thanks to better anti-retrovirals people with HIV are living longer but that also means more people are living with HIV than ever. Hopefully healthcare reforms will improve not only the Ryan White Act but also ADAP for the poor [ to get access to drugs ] .
"AIDS has been like no other disease and we cannot forget that. The sensationalism that still surrounds it is rooted in the stigmas of those effected by it: sexworkers, homosexuals and even the fear of contracting it through a transfusion. There's been so much discrimination about this disease because even still it disproportionately effects the gay community."
In Sherer's unique career he's had the advantage of watching a major American city respond and manage an ongoing epidemic. "I have to salute Cook County and the city of Chicago because they got their act together and got the funding," Sherer said. "We did a terrific job in those early days and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago brought in a lot of private funding. We have a good record for private and public funding and that's what makes Chicago a competitive city for HIV/AIDS care."
Each year The Crossroads Fund gives out an award in Dr. Ron Sable's memory. The award goes to individuals and organizations that best exemplify Sable's dedication to helping progressive change.
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.