In an uncertain world, dark forces lurk in the shadows, ready to prey on unsuspecting people struggling with AIDS. Sometimes those dark forces lie in wait in places never imagined by an ordinary person. That’s why the world needs people like Dr. Kimberly Smith.
“In the late 80s,” says the native of Detroit, Mich., “I remember one day looking at an Ebony magazine. The last page had this ad offering AIDS information. Out of curiosity, I sent off for the package.”
Her first thought upon seeing the paid ad about AIDS info in a popular Black magazine: “This will destroy Black folk. It was full of every incorrect stereotype and exactly the kind of information that would make a person feel defeated.”
An enlightened moment gave birth to a woman on a mission. Dr. Kimberly Smith has spent the past thirteen years as an AIDS researcher and treater. Currently, she is Associate Professor of Medicine at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. A fixture of the infectious disease unit, AIDS been the primary focus of Dr. Smith’s career, dating back to residency. It’s also a pandemic she saw approaching via her power of observation.
“As a college student and med student involved in political organizations and civil rights issues and racist issues in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was clear to me that this virus was going to be a civil rights and human rights issue,” says Dr. Smith. “It wasn’t clear in the media, but I understood that this was going to be a disease that disproportionally affects Black communities.”
Perhaps the media missed the warning signs because they failed to venture into marginalized communities. But that wasn’t the case for this Wolverine who attended the University of Michigan as an undergrad, for medical school and for a degree from the School of Public Health. Dr. Smith knew of people in the early struggle, and her eyewitness report was not a pretty picture. “I had friends who were gay and part of the protests,” she remembers fondly, then evokes the once-familiar ACT-UP rally cry “silence = death.” “Those protests taught me a lot. Not only is it a human rights issue, it’s a political issue, a social issue, and a medical issue.”
In addition to treating patients, Dr. Smith has contributed much more to the world’s dealing with the pandemic. She is Chair of the Under-represented Populations Committee for the AIDS Clinical Trial Group, where she holds the critical responsibility of increasing the number of women and people of color in AIDS clinical trials. Her contributions to abstracts and articles on HIV/AIDS would fill an entire library. She’s written on topics as diverse as “Improving Adherence to Antiretroviral Therapy,” “Disparities and Gaps in HIV Research and Care,” and “HIV Exposure to Chicago Police.”
The hardest part for a doctor with a heart in the trenches? “It’s so devastating,” says Dr. Smith. “I come from a progressive political perspective where everyone deserves to be treated equally.”
Doing her part for equality, Dr. Smith has been involved in many battles over the years, be it the struggle to combat racism, the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-sexist movement, or the anti-homophobic movement—all to promote inclusion and the betterment of society. She says her experiences challenged her to “look at society from broader perspectives.”
Perhaps it’s that broader perspective that allows Dr. Smith to relate to her patients’ concerns about AIDS and conspiracies against Black people. Half of the patients in her practice are African American, and between her time as supervisor at a women’s clinic and outpatient services for Chicago’s Cook County, she’s bound to hear a theory or two. “Whenever I talk to people in the community, I hear, Dr. Smith, don’t you believe AIDS was created by the government to kill Blacks?’”
What does she tell those inquiring minds: “I would not put anything past the U.S. government, but I don’t believe this to be true. The evidence shows the transmission was made from primates to humans. But regardless of how it came about, we need to concentrate on prevention. The most important thing we have to do as Black folk is ask ourselves what we can do about it.” Dr. Smith is also quick to point out: “Most of the time, Black folk and other folks of color get it from sex.”
For Dr. Smith, that means knowing how you get it, how not to pass it on, and understanding that with knowledge, “you’ll be okay.” She also encourages Blacks to be open to clinical trials, a valuable opportunity for cutting-edge treatment.
“Are we progressing?” Dr. Smith wonders when asked about the future. “Yes, but we have a long way to go.” She cites the great work of leaders in the struggle like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Rev. T.D. Jakes. She reminds us that we need more people to get tested and deal with living with HIV/AIDS early on. To illustrate her point of the benefits of a proactive approach to AIDS, she brings up two African American celebrities with HIV/AIDS. She notes that Magic Johnson found out he was HIV-positive, stayed on top of his health and received early treatment, and that rapper Easy E. did not, and while one is still alive today, one is not.
With medical heroes like Dr. Kimberly Smith leading the way, more and more people are living with AIDS and living magical, productive lives.