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Merciful M. D. : Pioneering Physician Also Political Advocate for AIDS Victims

May 01, 1988|RICHARD COLVIN | Times Staff Writer

It was at a Halloween night dinner with five friends in 1980 that Dr. Joel D. Weisman first spoke openly about the strangely stubborn infections appearing in his gay male patients.

For more than two years he and his partner, Dr. Gene Rogolsky, had been seeing an unusually high number of intestinal parasite cases and routine illnesses that returned mysteriously again and again. And now it appeared that some patients' immune systems had collapsed.

Little did Weisman know that his patients' stories would become part of one of the greatest medical horror stories of the 20th Century: the plague of AIDS. Even worse, he could not have predicted that 7 1/2 years later, of the friends at that dinner, he would be the only one who had not died of the disease.

"On some level it's depressing" to know so many people who have died, Weisman said recently. "It brings us all back to earth. It makes you deal with your own mortality."

His Life Changed

The life of Weisman, considered by colleagues to be one of the nation's leading acquired immune deficiency syndrome physicians, has been dramatically altered, personally and professionally, by the disease.

A well-established Sherman Oaks general practitioner who kept his homosexuality private, Weisman had been content to quietly provide compassionate and competent medical care. But events thrust him into the spotlight.

After 1981, when Weisman and UCLA's Dr. Michael Gottlieb wrote the first published report diagnosing the immune system collapse as a new disease, he became a medical pioneer, a health educator, a leader for gay civil rights and a lobbyist for greater research spending and social services.

A Different Arena

"We were all asked to do things we were not trained for," Weisman said. "All of a sudden it was important to have these political skills."

He appeared frequently on local and national television, as the first co-chairman of the board of the AIDS Project Los Angeles, to argue for more funds and services. And he became something of a celebrity, his smooth-skinned ruddy face, blue eyes and silvery gray hair recognized even when he tried to escape for quiet weekends at his Ventura beach house.

Meanwhile, with the disease striking down some of his closest friends as well as his longtime patients, Weisman had to re-evaluate his personal definition of medical success.

"It's made me look at issues of death and dying in a different way," said Weisman, 45. "What makes somebody a good physician in this situation? Is it just winning? Keeping people alive? If I looked at every death as a defeat, I would not be able to continue."

But continue he has. In recent years he has spent more time fighting medical battles, treating more patients and conducting clinical research, while others have stepped forward to bear the public burden of fighting for funds and services.

Swelling Patient Loads

Weisman, Rogolsky and two other general practitioners who have joined the practice have cared for about 1,000 of the 4,546 AIDS patients in Los Angeles County, including most of the cases in the San Fernando Valley. Deaths now total 2,844.

Even more patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus--who may develop AIDS--or suffering from AIDS-related complex, or ARC, also come to the office on Van Nuys Boulevard. Such cases now make up about 50% of the practice, and the percentage is growing.

Weisman said he now judges medical care by whether it increases the quality, not only the longevity, of patients' lives. He talks about protecting patients, and helping them retain their dignity and pride despite the disease's devastations. Early on in the epidemic, when hysteria caused some medical personnel to treat patients like pariahs, Weisman and his partners became ombudsmen for patients' rights.

He recalls that many people feared contracting the disease from casual contact. With his mother, Sylvia Weisman, working in his office, he had a powerful rebuttal to such fears.

"Do you think I would let my mother work here if I thought she could get the disease?" he would say.

Doesn't Harbor Fear

Although he once contracted hepatitis B from an accidental puncture with an infected needle, he said he does not fear becoming infected with AIDS. AIDS, he said, is far more difficult to contract.

Weisman teamed up with Rogolsky in 1975 after three years in private practice in Carteret, N. J., his hometown.

He had wanted to become a doctor since he was introduced to medicine by a family friend, a pathologist who took the 7-year-old Weisman to his laboratory.

The son of a high school principal and a veteran teacher, Weisman was always a good student and was quite popular, his mother said.

He graduated from Upsala College in East Orange, N. J., with a degree in biochemistry and then studied at the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City and Normandy Osteopathic Hospital in St. Louis.

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