Dave Baumgartner, MD, Reflects on Three Decades of Caring for People With HIV and AIDS
Imagine the year is 1987. You are a young physician, fellowship-trained in Infectious Disease, and there is a disease that is killing people by the thousands, a disease that there is no cure for, a disease whose name strikes fear in everyone’s hearts. Imagine that you dream of stopping this disease and providing hope for those who are affected.
That disease was AIDS, and that doctor is Dave Baumgartner, MD, infectious disease specialist. Baumgartner faithfully served people who were HIV-positive for nearly 30 years at the Mercy Health Infectious Disease McAuley Program, a community benefit ministry of Mercy Health. The McAuley Program has now become one of the nation’s highest-achieving treatment centers for people living with HIV and the largest clinic on the west side of the state. Today, the McAuley Program treats more than 1,100 patients annually with HIV with excellent results, thanks to steadfast its high quality clinical care provided by a dedicated, interdisciplinary team.
Back in 1988, newly fellowship-trained in Infectious Disease at the University of Michigan, Baumgartner opened a small private practice for Infectious Disease in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He quickly began seeing patients with HIV/AIDS and decided to expand to meet this demand, focusing on this patient population. To help him fight this disease, he called upon Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, where he had served as Chief Resident in 1985-1986, when the cause of HIV/AIDS was just being discovered.
Through an $87,000 grant from the State of Michigan, Baumgartner and Mercy Health Saint Mary’s opened their clinic for people with HIV/AIDS, called the McAuley Clinic. Together, they began their work with the help of only a case manager, an RN and an outreach worker.
“We saw more than three dozen patients the first two months, whereas the initial goal was to treat 35 patients in the first year,” recalled Baumgartner. “Word spread quickly.”
Hope was his message. During a time of widespread fear and anxiety regarding AIDS, he would tell his HIV-positive patients, “Let’s focus on keeping you healthy today, then tomorrow, and then next week. The next treatment will be out there, and then we can get you on it.” The prognosis for someone with HIV in the late 80s was grim: Only half of the people who contracted it lived one year after diagnosis, and only 10 percent after two years.
The fear of HIV wasn’t felt just by those who had contracted it; it was widespread.
“Some in the community didn’t want to go to the same hospital where we treated people with HIV and AIDS,” said Baumgartner. “It came at a cost to Mercy Health. I want to commend Mercy Health Saint Mary’s for stepping up. It was the only hospital at the time who would take care of people with AIDS and HIV, during a time when it was not highly looked upon to do so.”
Back in the 90s, Baumgartner and his infectious disease counterparts scattered across the country “learned as they went.” During a time before the Internet, in order to receive timely information, Baumgartner and other experts personally attended clinical conferences.
“Medical journals took six months and medical books took two years to get published,” he said.” My patients didn’t have that much time to wait for this information.”
Each new treatment provided new hope for both patients and providers. “At first, the medications only slowed the progression of the disease.”
Two breakthroughs occurred in the mid-90s for treating HIV. One was the process of treating patients with a combination of three drugs, rather than just one at a time, and the second was the use of blood tests to quickly monitor the virus level in someone’s blood to track how well the drugs were working.
Patients who traveled elsewhere for treatment came back to Grand Rapids because of the level of personalized and respectful care. “Other clinics were overloaded with patients, and our local people would come back to us,” said Baumgartner. “Since we were all learning togethern about HIV, our patients in Grand Rapids had access to the same medical treatments as they did in San Francisco or New York.”
One of the proudest accomplishments for Baumgartner is the treatment of pregnant mothers who are HIV-positive. “We have virtually eliminated the transfer of the virus from mothers to their babies,” said Baumgartner, “and I especially thank Dr. Minerva Galang and her entire team of medical assistants, nurses, pharmacists, case managers and office coordinators for their clinical focus and work on reducing these transmissions. As a team we spent a lot of hours working with our pregnant patients to meet their needs and protect their unborn babies. It exemplifies compassionate, accessible and personalized care.”
For Baumgartner, the past three decades weren’t just about the clinical aspect — it’s personal. “It’s been a joy to see my patients have children at the same time I had my kids, and then for them to have grandchildren when I have had mine.”
When he stopped practicing infectious disease medicine in November 2017 to focus on his role as Chief Medical Officer at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Baumgartner had to say goodbye to a patient that he had been treating since 1988. Due to his clinical aptitude and care over the past 30 years, many of his patients have become geriatric patients, in need of care for many chronic conditions that one would see in a general aging patient population — heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.
“HIV is no longer a death sentence, rather a chronic illness.”
Learn more about the McAuley Infectious Disease Program.