“HOW DO YOU MEASURE THE LIFE OF A WOMAN OR A MAN?”
April 6, 2016 • By Richard Wolitski, Ph.D., Acting Director, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
That lyric from the Broadway musical Rent played over again and again in my head as I sat down to write this blog about the work that my friend Douglas Brooks has done at The White House.
Our accomplishments in life are measured and weighed in many different ways. Douglas’ life story is still being written, so it’s premature to consider the totality of his life’s work. But the chapter of his life that was written during his tenure as the Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) at The White House is impressive enough on its own.
Like the song says, there are 525,600 minutes in a year. Douglas worked at The White House for exactly 2 years. That’s not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, but Douglas used his minutes well.
He worked hard each and every day and approached his work with heart, humility, and a profound sense of responsibility to the men and women of this country. During his tenure he led the update of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), which provides a comprehensive road map for our nation’s response to HIV into the next administration. His leadership ensured that the updated strategy was relevant, more inclusive, and more focused.
The Strategy now incorporates the newest science about the effectiveness of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention and stresses the importance of viral suppression for the health of people living with HIV. Douglas’ vision about the importance of improving access to PrEP was controversial in some circles at the time, but the growing body of scientific evidence is clear: PrEP is highly effective when taken daily at preventing HIV infection in the real world.
Ensuring that all stakeholders saw themselves and the communities they serve in the plan was very important to Douglas. He made sure that the updated Strategy was inclusive of all persons at risk for HIV, as well as those living with the virus. As a result of his leadership, the Strategy now shines more light on the needs of black gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and persons living in the South – all groups who bear a disproportionate burden of HIV in the United States.
Douglas brought a renewed focus to the updated NHAS that integrated the recommendations of the HIV Care Continuum Working Group and the Working Group on the Intersection of HIV/AIDS, Violence Against Women and Girls, and Gender-Related Health Disparities. By taking the recommendations from these efforts and incorporating them, Douglas made the Strategy stronger and more responsive. The update also built on the historic successes of the Affordable Care Act, which eliminated the ability of insurance companies to deny health coverage for pre-existing conditions and made affordable, high-quality health care available to millions of Americans at risk for, and living with, HIV.
The problem of HIV in the United States is complex and affects many diverse populations. Under Douglas’ leadership, the updated Strategy addresses this complexity, while at the same time reminding us of what’s most important and what’s likely to have the biggest impact on stopping the epidemic. Douglas insisted that we be clear about what’s most important. That’s why the Strategy focuses on the right people, the right places, and the right practices.
Even in planning his departure from government service, Douglas looked out for the HIV community. The choice of Dr. Amy Lansky to be the new Director of ONAP ensures that the work of implementing the Strategy will continue and that there will be a smooth transition into the next administration. I have worked with Amy for many years. She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. Her considerable scientific expertise and her work with Douglas to draft the updated Strategy for ONAP will make it possible to make the best use of these crucial last months of the Obama administration.
It has been a blessing in my life to count Douglas among my friends. He has an unwavering ability to stay focused on doing what’s right, even when the way forward is not popular or easy. He is deeply compassionate and has the ability to listen, be present, and see the good in people, even when they are angry or upset with him.
During the many years I have known Douglas, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to making the world a better place for people living with HIV and those who are at risk of infection. His work has honored the memories of the more than 670,000 Americans with HIV we’ve lost. As someone living with HIV myself, I know that Douglas has made the world a little better for all of us who are fortunate enough to still be here.
Last week, leaders and advocates in the HIV community hosted a reception in Washington, D.C., to honor Douglas for his work. What impressed me the most was not the accolades of the Surgeon General, Dr. Anthony Fauci, past ONAP directors, other powerful leaders from across the federal government, and the community who paid tribute to Douglas. What impressed me most were the words engraved on the bracelet that the host committee gave him: “You Are Loved.”
That’s how you measure a life.