Bowdoin’s Dr. Pols Enlightens Students on AIDS in the 21st Century

Dr. Birgit Pols shares her personal story with AIDS at a recent talk about the disease

Though medical advances have largely displaced AIDS from the forefront of national concern, the disease continues to have a significant presence in the United States, according to Dr. Birgit Pols, Bowdoin’s health services director. The rate of new HIV infections in the U.S. has been stable since the 1990s, despite increased awareness and prevention strategies.

Pols offered a sobering reflection on her involvement with AIDS community as she spoke to a packed audience in Smith Union’s Lamarche Gallery about her work as a young physician and mother. Through the stories of one of her patient’s and her own son’s battles with AIDS, Pols drew attention to the difficulties and stigmatization that AIDS patients have suffered and continue to suffer in the U.S.

The event was held to welcome the arrival of 24 quilt panels from the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. A panel for Pols’ son was included among them, along with one for Virgil Logan, class of 1969, who died in 1989. The panels will remain on display in the gallery through February 9.

Pols set the mood for her talk with one of 1975’s biggest hits: Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.”

When I was young
I never needed anyone
And making love was just for fun
Those days are gone

It was a time when the term “safer sex” was used to describe how kids should “turn off the engine or crack the window when making out in the back seat of a car,” Pols recounted. It was a time when it was legal to discriminate based on a person’s HIV status or sexual orientation; a time when the very first anti-HIV drugs became available in the U.S.; a time when one could graduate medical school without once hearing the word AIDS mentioned in a classroom.

It was also the time that Pols began her residency. In a Charleston, South Carolina hospital, she worked tirelessly and soon became known as one of the best doctors in public practice for AIDS patients in the region. Despite being one of the most decorated students ever to complete her residency program, Pols wasn’t offered a single job upon graduation. The stigmatization of AIDS patients extended to those who helped treat them.

Later, while working at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Pols received a phone call. A week later, she and her partner were the adoptive mothers of an 18-month-old boy with AIDS named Corey. Despite discrimination, demanding jobs and the continuing development of Corey’s disease, the women worked hard to provide their son with the full life that every child deserves: Corey grew to be a “curious and adventuresome boy” who spent little of his time in the hospital. He enjoyed bike ride and trips to the park. However, as his health declined, he could no longer go out. His coughing concerned people. There came a point when his health only declined.

Pols reminded the audience that the stories she shared were only two among countless others. In total, 48,000 quilt panels comprise the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, each with its own story.

Faced with these poignant stories, many audience members were left wondering what they could do. Pols answered. She reminded people they can remember, be available and be present. “We can resist the temptation to be paralyzed by lack of formal training or experience,” she said. To close her talk, she reminded the audience of the importance of self-care. “First, put on your own oxygen mask; you can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.”

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