A Look On The Lighter Side: The doctor and the critic

Judy Epstein

What would you do if somebody called you a murderer, a liar, an incompetent idiot, and the moral equivalent of Hitler — all on the front page of the Sunday magazine of an important newspaper?

Would you end up as their friend, possibly even saving their life?

I don’t think I would. I don’t think I could.

But that’s exactly what Dr. Anthony Fauci was able to do, with his most vicious critic, the late AIDS activist and writer Larry Kramer. And it may well have changed history for the better.

The story begins with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when the writer Larry Kramer realized that too many of his friends — other gay men like himself — were dying in their 20’s of unprecedented, “old man” diseases… and nobody could say why.

The president at the time, Ronald Reagan, never once even mentioned the words “AIDS” or “HIV” during his eight years in office (1981 – 1989) and took no measures against the disease, which became an epidemic on his watch.

Kramer felt that such bureaucratic stonewalling in the face of tragedy justified extreme measures. In 1988 he focused his fury on Dr. Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984 (a position he still holds today).

Kramer took out a full-page ad on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday magazine.

“Anthony Fauci, you are a murderer,” it began, “nothing but a despicable Reagan-era holdover and drug company mouthpiece. … With 270,000 dead from AIDS and millions more infected with HIV, you should not be honored at a dinner. You should be put before a firing squad.”

“He attacked me, he called me a murder, he called me an incompetent idiot,” remembers Fauci of the ad. “I’ll never forget that. He wanted to gain my attention. And he certainly did gain my attention.”

But here’s where Dr. Fauci differed from ordinary mortals like me. He decided to listen!

“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him.’ So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”

It helped that Fauci realized that Kramer didn’t mean any of it personally. It was just his style.

As for the other activists, “I felt if these young men were going to this extent, they must be suffering terribly. So I tried to become and easily became, as empathetic as I possibly could be and say, let me put myself in their shoes. If I were in their position, what would I be doing? And I rapidly came to the conclusion that I would be doing exactly what they were doing.”

One case, in particular, shook Fauci profoundly. In San Francisco, he met an AIDS patient who was in a trial of the experimental drug AZT, hoping it could save his life. But the man also had cytomegalovirus, which could blind him, and for which the only drug was also experimental.

The trouble was, the government only allowed a person to be in trials of a single drug.

“And he looked at me,” recalled Fauci, “and he says, ‘What kind of choice is that? You’re telling me I should either die or go blind, but I can’t do both.’ And when he said that, I said, oh my God, this is really nuts. And that’s when I became a real, almost confrontative activist against my own government that was not allowing these things to happen.”

Fauci brought the activists — his critics — into the tent. “It took weeks and months and months of getting to know each other getting to trust each other,” but eventually, he brought them into the government’s committees and decision-making processes.

Fauci instituted reforms like the Emergency Use Authorization — a term now familiar to the entire world as the way that COVID vaccines have been rolled out. He also authorized the “Compassionate Use” of drugs, even before emergency use, for patients in extreme situations.

As for Larry Kramer, he and Dr. Fauci became fast friends. And when Kramer’s health began mysteriously failing, in 2001, Fauci figured out he needed a liver transplant and helped him get one — changing the rules for all HIV patients.

By the time Kramer passed away of pneumonia, in May of 2020, the scientist and his fiercest critic could end their calls with ‘I love you.’ “Those were the last words we said to each other that last night,” wrote Fauci in a remembrance for Time magazine. “That was a good way to end a very long and very dear friendship.”

I am taking Dr. Fauci as my personal role model. We may not all be able to benefit an entire nation by deciding to listen to our critics. But at the very least, we might benefit ourselves.

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