Public Health Crusader And College Student Talk Sex, AIDS And What Makes Them Mad

Jun 19, 2014

Editor's Note: “Senior Thesis” is a special week-long series that brings together venerable veterans in various fields with university students hoping to forge a career in the same field.

Bob Wood and Carolyn Wortham sat opposite each other in the KPLU studio, separated by a generation during which a whole lot had happened.

Between the time that Dr. Wood took up arms against the AIDS epidemic and when Wortham took on the same fight, the illness has gone from mysterious killer to manageable condition. The battlefield had moved, to some extent, from urban gay neighborhoods to the developing world.

Wood and Wortham represent those very distinct chapters in the story of AIDS. Wood began treating AIDS patients in the early 1980s in Seattle. Wortham has done AIDS work in Botswana as she prepares to finish her bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University. Each thought the other one had the tougher job.

“I haven’t really taken on global health,” Wood said to Wortham. “That, to me, is a huge problem. I always said to myself, well, there are problems right here in this country. Why are you interested in tackling the huge problem at the global level, versus taking on some problem in Burlington, or Bellingham?”

“We have literally everything at our fingertips here in the U.S. Yet we still have all these issues,” said Wortham. “And that, to me, is a bigger monster than traveling somewhere where there are disparities, but there’s room to grow … It’s more straightforward.”

‘I Have A Pretty Real Question’

WWU student Carolyn Wortham at a clinic in Serowe, Botswana.
WWU student Carolyn Wortham at a clinic in Serowe, Botswana.
Credit Courtesy of Carolyn Wortham.

At 21, Wortham is tall and athletic, blond and ardent. Wood is 71, bald with prominent ears and an enigmatic smile. They may share an interest, but still make for an odd couple.

The point in the conversation where they really started to connect was when Carolyn broke in.

“I have a pretty real question,” she said. “What really pissed you off when you were in the middle of all that? Everything was happening so quickly, but there were also things that were holding back a lot of movement.”

Wood steeped in the question a moment. There was a lot to consider: It had taken years to get traction in the fight against AIDS. Ignorance, homophobia and inequalities all took their toll

“What would piss me off was when people were sort of irrational about it. Really by ’85, ‘86 we knew that this wasn’t a casually transmitted disease. And yet there were plenty of doctors and dentists who really didn’t want to take care of people with HIV and AIDS,” he said. “Yeah, that would piss me off.”

A Campus Confrontation

Wood then came back at the young questioner: “Have you ever really gotten pissed off? Like, pounding-on-the-table pissed off?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Give me an example,” he said.

Credit Courtesy of Carolyn Wortham

Wortham told a story about working as a peer sexual health educator on campus. One day she was scheduled to staff a table and give out information on campus, but someone else was in her assigned spot, preaching a very different message.

“[He said,] ‘If you're gay, you’re going to hell.’ And they're yelling these things out, and they have really morbid posters. I had been scheduled to table right where they were at that day, and I was going to be handing out free condoms,” she said.

Wortham asked him to leave, and he unloaded a tirade at her.

“One of my very good friends who identifies as homosexual, he felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. And that pissed me off, the fact that people can’t feel OK with who they are,” she said. “For me, that has been fuel to keep just removing the stigma, so people can feel safe.”

‘I Discovered I Had HIV … So I Really Had Nothing To Lose’

Wood, who discovered he was a gay man in his early adulthood, helped organize a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender doctors in Seattle.

He remembered, soon after, being on a sailing trip with a friend who was complaining of sores and night sweats. Before long, the AIDS crisis was in full bloom, and Wood was caring for patients when few others would. Then came another revelation.

“I discovered I had HIV in ‘85. So I really had nothing to lose. I already had the bad disease, and I assumed that I would probably die of it,” Wood said.

Wood would go on to put in decades as a physician and public health official, spearheading King County’s AIDS control efforts. He became perhaps the most prominent crusader against HIV and AIDS in the Seattle area.

Dr. Bob Wood, in the early 1990s.
Dr. Bob Wood, in the early 1990s.
Credit Courtesy of Bob Wood.

In the early days, there wasn’t much to be done for people with the disease; there was no cure and little relief from the symptoms. What there was, said Wood, was testing.

“It gives you a bit of an advantage. You can monitor your health a little more closely. You can get your will together in case you're going to die,” Wood said.

“And it actually turns out to be more useful in changing behavior than all the education we could give, and the counseling part. You could educate them until you’re blue in the face, and they’d still have lots of partners and not use condoms, perhaps. But the only thing that really seemed to change people’s behavior is knowing that they had HIV.”

Chipping Away At The Boulder, One Piece At A Time

That determination to fight for even a small bit of turf is emblematic of Wood’s philosophy about how to take on big, intractable problems — something that became clear when Wortham asked him a question.

“Trying to tackle some of the disparities is completely overwhelming,” she said. “It almost seems impossible. But I know you have actually made quite a difference. How did you manage to conquer the monster?”

“Well I’ve got a little phrase that I found just a couple weeks ago by Renee Descartes, the French philosopher,” Wood answered.

Here’s the quote, which tags all of Wood’s emails: “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it." 

“I’ve generally taken the approach that we’re trying to move a boulder,” Wood said. “But if you can chip off little pieces of problems, then you have a chance of gradually wearing away that boulder.”