July 19, 2014
So ended Joep's last email to me.
We had been chatting about the Netherlands' World Cup football (soccer, to us Americans) team loss and the same-day cycling triumph of Dutchman Lars Boom on the cobblestones of Northern France.
We were also working on a health diplomacy initiative to further the goal of ending HIV/AIDS around the world. Just two weeks ago, we had finished working on a journal supplement about controlling the HIV epidemic with antiretroviral medications.
Joep Lange's murder (one of nearly 300 that day) at the hands of a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine is painfully ironic. Joep was traveling from Amsterdam to Melbourne, to the International AIDS Conference -- and to further the goal of decreasing death from AIDS around the world. Ukraine has the highest HIV/AIDS rates in all of Europe.
Joep's death is too close and so difficult for me to bear. I met Joep nearly 20 years ago. Our young children swam together -- briefly, as I recall -- on a warm beach during a medical conference.
Joep, already a world-famous AIDS physician/researcher from Amsterdam, a doctor-activist. Me, a just out-of-training, star-struck junior HIV doctor from Denver.
Joep, at the time the soon-to-be president of the International AIDS Society, who would advocate for the human right of universal access to life-saving HIV medications at a time when U.S. government officials thought that Africans were too uneducated to take complicated HIV pill regimens.
Joep, a member of the board of trustees of the International Association of Physicians of AIDS Care, an organization for which I now serve as chief medical officer.
Joep, from Amsterdam, a city and people I love, and where I would eventually spend a few years working in international HIV/AIDS health and human rights.
In his ability to welcome clinicians, researchers, policy makers and patients equally to the table -- and to speak with clarity and force what others were too timid to say -- I felt the presence of a role model.
Big Schiphol, the airport from which Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 would one day take off -- and from which I have spent many an hour and boarded many similar, foreign aircraft, traveling to and from my own work on projects that supported the ideals for which Joep advocated. Long-haul, intercontinental flights, the fuselages within which the international community of itinerate HIV workers sit commuting to job sites, eating bad airline food, attempting to sleep in uncomfortable seats, and bracing for the onslaught of many hours of jet lag. And we depend on modern aerospace technology to deliver us safely to our destinations and back home to our families' embrace.
My mind calculates it was just an hour or so after takeoff from Schiphol: the announcement of cruise altitude; flight attendants getting ready for the in-flight meal; the clanking of food carts. Settling in for the long, overnight flight -- first over Eastern Europe, then Central Asia, I think. A route I've flown many times in the past. Over Ukraine -- a place I've spent many weeks, helping to train doctors and nurses on the use of life-saving HIV medications. It's a country where I have friends.
And then it's over.
Try as I might, it's difficult to not have my mind's eye flash to the imaginary images of Joep's plane falling from the sky over Ukraine. I have nightmares. I avoid looking at the pictures of smoldering debris and the descriptions of human remains. The passengers. People.
Was Joep aware of the missile strike? (I hope not.) Was there a sentient moment of terror, of falling from sky? (I hope not.) Was his death quick, or painless? (I plead.) So much of grieving is autonomic. And so I weep.
Today, and quite probably for a few more days, when I have quiet time, I'll weep again for Joep and his wife Jacqueline; and for their children, who have lost them; and for the hundreds of other families so terribly affected.
But Joep, we will continue to advance the wish for universal access to HIV medications; to wish the end of unnecessary suffering from AIDS. Too many have sacrificed so much, and the global HIV/AIDS community has come too far to stop now. Thank you, Joep, for all you have done, the millions of lives that you've touched, and for all that you have meant to me.
Best wishes, Joep.