Bold, Brave, Brilliant

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An Interview with Dr. Wilbert C. Jordan

By Charles McWells

Wilbert C. Jordan, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the OASIS Clinic of King/Drew Medical Center, has been committed to HIV/AIDS research and prevention since the early 1980s. In 1983 he reported the first heterosexual case of HIV in Los Angeles County. He has served on both the Los Angeles County HIV Planning Council and the Prevention and Planning Committee since their inceptions. Dr. Jordan has also been the medical director for the Minority AIDS Project since its creation, chaired the Black Los Angeles AIDS Consortium for the past 12 years, and most recently has been a member of the board of directors of the AIDS Research Alliance. Recently Dr. Jordan discussed his life and work with Message magazine.

Where did you enter this thing, specifically as it relates to HIV in the Black Community?
“I’ve been involved from the very beginning,” recounts Dr. Jordan. “I saw my first [AIDS] patient in 1979 … didn’t know what he had.”
But in 1981, an issue of the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published one of the first scientific accounts of this mysterious disease. Dr. Jordan immediately recognized that some of the symptoms described in the article were identical to what he’d seen with his patient.
“I called him and told him ‘I think I know what’s going on now.’”

What did you see, experience, encounter and observe at the height of the epidemic? What was happening? What was its impact on you?
When asked to share about what he experienced during the height of the epidemic, Dr. Jordan is pointed. “This is hard to answer. People were frightened. Families put [HIV-positive] kids out. Families brought loved ones to the clinics, ER, other hospitals, and left them,” he remembered.
Jordan was particularly concerned about the lack of support the HIV-positive community received from faith-based organizations. “Many churches put members out … would not allow funerals. Only two ministers … would do funerals: Chip Murray (of First African Methodist Episcopal Church) and James Lawson at Holman (United Methodist Church).”
On numerous occasions, Dr. Jordan has addressed Black pastors and congregations, and taken them to task for the discriminatory treatment that they have sometimes directed toward same-gender-loving and HIV-positive people. In some of his more memorable observations, he’s taken issue with mothers who will go to the penitentiary every weekend to visit a son who was imprisoned for murdering someone, but will throw out of the house the son who loves other men.

What did you do? What did your role become? How did you show up in the space?
Dr. Jordan’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis was revolutionary on several fronts. He created the OASIS Clinic, the first medical facility in South Los Angeles devoted to the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
But he didn’t stop there. Jordan realized that his patients needed more than medical treatment. They also needed emotional and spiritual healing—a means of recovering from the stigma and mistreatment that they endured on a daily basis. So he invited outreach ministries from several “friendly” churches to visit the clinic and provide lunches and compassionate engagement to patients. For some patients, these lunches were the only food they’d receive on those days; and those hugs and kind words were the only signs of affection that they’d experienced in a long time.
But Dr. Jordan didn’t stop there. He made space in the clinic for 12-Step meetings and other support groups. He supported the development of a drop-in center/food pantry next door on the campus of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. And he treated hundreds of HIV-positive patients to free trips to Catalina Island, Universal Studios, the Long Beach Aquarium, and other fun locales.

What’s your perspective on where we are as a community around ending the epidemic?
Jordan agrees that the prospects for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community have been bolstered by pharmacological advances over the years. These include the advent of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, and, more recently, PrEP and PEP, home testing kits, and same-day linkage to HIV medication for newly diagnosed positives (Rapid Anti Retroviral Therapy). But despite these medical breakthroughs, “the majority of women who get HIV in the country are Black. But they are only 14-15% of all the women in this country. Black gay men account for more HIV than white gay men. We are way behind as far as PrEP usage goes.”
Asked if, at the end of the day, he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future of HIV in communities of color, Dr. Jordan says, “I rally can’t answer that, but we lack real leadership.”
Despite all of the trauma and turmoil of the past four decades, Dr. Jordan sees a silver lining. “I got to meet some wonderful people.” Some of those people have passed on—victims of a disease that has been particularly devastating to communities of color. But other relationships have survived the virus.
For Dr. Jordan, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has fostered numerous professional partnerships and even more personal friendships. And it is those partnerships and friendships that are also part of the story of HIV/AIDS in Black America.

Charles McWells is a program manager at the Los Angeles Centers for Drug and Alcohol Use, an instructor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and a playwright.

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