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The Fight Against Stigma

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The Fight Against Stigma

Written by: Christopher Zacher

Dr. Ann Petru Helps to Create Opportunities for the Ostracized

For Dr. Ann Petru, life is about taking care of the people who need it most. As the Director of the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, she has spent the majority of her professional career providing treatment to children who suffer from autoimmune diseases. When she treated her first HIV-positive patient in the early 1980’s, the disease did not yet have a name. However, she quickly discovered that researching and treating the disease as well as advocating for children who suffer from it would be something worth dedicating her life to.

“It kind of fell in my lap,” Ann says, speaking of how she came to be a leading researcher of the disease, “It’s been fascinating and rewarding. I’ve had the privilege of taking care of some pretty incredible people.”

Re-Educating the Community

Ann sees herself as an educator just as much as a medical professional. She’s spent much of her career fighting against the social stereotypes that are imposed on children born with HIV.

“There’s still a lot of misinformation,” she says. “There are still people who think you can get HIV by drinking from the same cup.”

She tells the story of one 13-year-old patient she treats who was told by a teacher that HIV can be transmitted by sharing food. “This is a kid who knows about his disease and has been educated on real facts, and yet this teacher is giving horrendously erroneous information to classmates,” she explains. “Much of what we do in clinics is helping kids cope with ignorance on the outside and to give them enough confidence to trust themselves and know where to turn for useful information that’s accurate.”

A Life of Advocacy and Mentorship

As a result of the stigma around HIV and AIDS, Ann and her team spend much of their time instilling a sense of self-worth into patients who might otherwise lack it. “They’ve been told that you can’t let anyone get exposed to your blood, you can’t live in a community with other people because people will be afraid of you,” she says.

A number of her patients from China, for example, were isolated from their communities and placed into special orphanages for children who were born with the disease. One orphanage was forced to pack up and move overnight when word got out that all of the kids who lived there had HIV. “It takes a long time for us to convince them that they’re good people, that they have good potential, that they can go to school and learn,” she says.

The success stories that come from Ann’s work are abundant. She talks about one patient who immigrated to America after losing her mother and brother in Ethiopia.

“She graduated from high school, college, and went to graduate school for a degree in social work,” Ann says proudly. “Now she’s taking care of homeless youth in Southern California. This kid lost so much in her home country and here she is giving to the world.”

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Giving Back to the World

As the child of a Holocaust survivor, Ann understood from an early age that life can be quite cruel to people. Upon finishing medical school, she came to the realization that while she had spent her 20s studying medicine, her mother had been locked in a concentration camp when she was that age. “The day I graduated from medical school, I learned that if my mother had not been in a concentration camp, she would have become a doctor,” Ann says. “In a way, I’ve lived out her legacy.”

Ann’s own legacy is a generous one. Both of her adult children have inherited her sense of public service and desire to help people. Her daughter works as a family medicine doctor at community clinics and her son is the athletic director for a high school. “They’re both just wonderful people,” she says. “They got it.”

She tells one story of her son speaking out against the expulsion of student from the soccer team due to misbehavior. “My son advocated for him because this is a boy who has no support at home,” she explains. “What keeps this kid going to school is that he loves soccer, so my son is his support.”

The hospitality of her family reflects Ann’s own philosophy on life. “It’s not about making money. It’s not about traveling and seeing the world,” she says. “People need to look at what’s happening around them and find something that’s important. Take care of someone who no one else wants to care of. We really need to look after one another.”

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