Dr. M. Keith Rawlins
“When my children or grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do when people were dying of AIDS?’ I want to be able to say I did my best.”
For Dr. M. Keith Rawlins, the call to action in the HIV/AIDS pandemic was both professional and personal. His daughter was born in 1982 and he knew she would turn 18 in the year 2000. By the mid-Eighties, Rawlins was practicing medicine in his native Baltimore and had a firsthand look at how “this strange new disease” wrecked havoc on people’s lives. His first patient with AIDS was a gay white male. His next five patients were people of color, some men, some women, many of them part of the city’s large population of drug users. Rawlins realized this was a disease affecting blacks and that the issues surrounding HIV transmission included many activities young people were involved in. He saw his children growing up in a world challenged by these issues amidst a health crisis unlike any other.
“Back then it was ‘diagnose and die’,” says Rawlins. “I asked myself: how am I going to address this as a physician and a father?”
The answers he came up with have helped, not only his offspring, but an entire generation. Rawlins’ journey took him to Dallas, where he has been an acclaimed source of care, advocacy, insight and hope in the Lone Star State.
A dinner conversation led to the banding together of a group of African American clinicians who were all dealing with HIV in their professions. Their goal was to be involved in the training of other clinicians in HIV care. The result was IMANi, the Integrated Minority AIDS Network, Inc.. With Rawlins as its president, IMANi serves as a vital link between doctors, physicians, dentists, pharmacists, health centers and community organizations, all of whom are involved in crucial AIDS-related work.
Rawlings is also medical director for the AIDS Arms Peabody Health Center. AIDS Arms, Inc., is the largest Dallas-based nonprofit agency providing both outpatient medical care and social service case management programs for persons with HIV/AIDS. Since opening in 2001, the center has gone from caring for 225 patients to over 900.
A graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Rawlins is a frequent national and international lecturer and advocate for clinical services within communities of color. He was co-chaired of the Infectious Diseases/ HIV program for the Internal Medicine Section of the National Medical Association, and has served the HIV community in numerous ways: on the Human Resources and Services Administration AIDS Advisory Committee; as a co-principal investigator and advisory board member of the National Minority AIDS Education & Training Center; as a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of HIV Medicine; and as a part the South African Presidential HIV Advisory Board.
Titles aside, Rawlins is passionate about the need for the United States to address healthcare inadequacies that go back a long way and are in part responsible for the proliferation of diseases like HIV/AIDS.
“Clearly the inequities in healthcare system have been in existence since formulation of republic,” he says. “HIV is one of many diseases that is impacting the fabric of our community because of inadequate prevention and intervention. AIDS has merely highlighted many problems of disparity among blacks.”
Rawlins is quick to point out the socio-economic factors that contribute to African Americans being more susceptible to diseases like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension and renal failure, but he’s also adamant about finding solutions to the disparities and health crises.
“HIV is true bellwether,” he points out. “It can’t just be the onus of the individual to fix the problem. We’re contributing to our own demise. We must all ask ourselves: how can I prevent my child and someone else’s child from getting it? Or care for them if they do get it?”
Rawlins is a firm believer in the dual components of prevention and intervention, but his impetus is on intervening with those who have slipped through the prevention cracks, stating: “This is a not a disease that can be prevented away or educated away. If you cannot bring together prevention and intervention, the results will be even more catastrophic.”
As for educating his daughter who was born when AIDS was in its own infancy—and her younger brother—Rawlins laughs and says, “I talked with them about sex and drugs since preschool. I’ve dragged them to more HIV, health and STD conferences—they’ve heard more than they ever want to hear about.”
He fondly reminisces about his daughter doing rounds and attending lectures with him during a stint in rural Louisiana, but the levity in his words disappears when he talks about the pandemic and the radical shift needed in the United States to change the course of history: “We’ve got to look at what’s happening with our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our children. If I could do anything, I’d eliminate access to the healthcare disparities.”
The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Rawlings was acknowledged for his work by being named the National Medical Association Practitioner of the Year in 2002. He was also the recipient of the NMA 2004 Internist of the Year Award.
“It’s flattering,” he says of his Heroes in the Struggle honor. “I feel part of a clear tradition among our people who have preceded me and who have struggled to deal with the issues facing our community throughout history, sometimes with hostility. It’s moving to think that someone believes what I do deserves recognition.”
Make that recognition well deserved for answering the call to action as both a physician and a father.