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Jewesses with Attitude

Abby Shevitz -- a role model in the global fight against AIDS

December 1 is World AIDS Day, established in 1988 by the World Health Organization to raise awareness and focus attention on the global AIDS epidemic. World AIDS Day reminds us that for many across the globe, the spread of HIV/AIDS is a very real, very present, part of every day life, and millions are suffering.The global AIDS epidemic can be difficult for some Americans to accept or understand.

In the U.S., education and awareness campaigns have been fairly effective in preventing the spread of HIV, and medical advances in treatment have allowed many with HIV to live long and active lives. The strategies that work for us, however, do not work in Africa for a number of cultural and economic reasons, and it can be difficult to know the best way to help.  For this reason, it is important to look to role models like the late Dr. Abby Shevitz (pictured above), a physician and advocate who used compassion as her primary weapon in the fight against AIDS. In the global war on AIDS, compassion will always be our most effective strategy.

Dr. Abby Shevitz, one of the Boston honorees at JWA’s Women Who Dared event in 2002, passed away in 2005 at the age of 46.  She was working as a Resident Physician and one of the first female Chief Residents at Boston City Hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US in the 1980s. She said, "The most important ground that I broke was to develop an AIDS 101 Curriculum to teach the house staff what AIDS was, what it meant, how to care for terminally ill patients, especially the compassion side, which most staff were not prepared for." Dr. Shevitz then went on to help develop the first HIV Testing Protocol at a time when there were no existing guidelines.

Later, in 1994, Dr. Shevitz earned a Masters Degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. In 1996 she joined the faculty of the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. In these years, she earned an international reputation for her work on HIV/AIDS, including research on the nutritional problems and lipodystrophy associated with HIV infection. We can only imagine what accomplishments would have followed. While Dr. Shevitz’s research is undoubtedly significant, she leaves behind a legacy of compassion, a Jewish value that informed her life’s work, “just caring, loving, giving.”

"I always wanted to be one of these people who traveled internationally and save the Third World. I never did that. But I've done it on a different scale, closer to home. All of my patients, since the beginning of my work, involved people who are impoverished, many of them homeless, many of them addicted to drugs, most have horribly abusive backgrounds; their stories are horrible. They all responded so incredibly positively to someone who genuinely cared about them. Patients said, 'No one has ever shown that they cared about me.' Imagine that they didn't have that ever in their lives. The first time they heard that was from a doctor at a time when they had a fatal illness."

Last year Jordan Namerow, one of our JWA bloggers, wrote about her experience working with AIDS patients in Africa. This kind of work is incredible and inspiring, but for a lot of reasons, most of us will never go to developing nations to fight AIDS on the ground.  Still, that does not mean that they have nothing to offer. Dr. Shevitz never made it to Africa, and called herself an “advocate” rather than an “activist.” The work of activists is crucial, but one does not have to be an activist to make a difference. Advocacy is something that each of us can accomplish in our own way. Being compassionate in our daily lives, in our work, in our acts of tzedakah, is part of advocacy. Compassion, like HIV, can be passed from person to person and from parent to child. It is even easier to transmit since it can be passed simply through setting an example.

Dr. Shevitz said that as a woman in medicine she never felt discriminated against, but that she wished she had had more women role models throughout her career: "Certainly being compassionate and having the caring side is more of a woman's thing than a man's thing. And that motherly compassion has always been such an important part of my career and advocacy… If I'd had a personal role model, I might have proceeded faster or with a stronger sense of direction, rather than trying to find my own way." And this is why, on World AIDS Day, I suggest that we look to Dr. Abby Shevitz as our role model. However we choose to contribute to the global war against AIDS, Dr. Shevitz reminds us to fight, first and foremost, with compassion.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Abby Shevitz -- a role model in the global fight against AIDS." 1 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/abby-shevitz>.

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