Wingman: My Doctor and Me, a Medical Partnership
By Philip D.
March 2, 2010
Recently, while preparing to be part of a patient panel of an AIDS Forum for second-year medical students, I struggled to find a way to describe the unique, relatively new relationship between myself and my doctor, since testing HIV positive.
I remember how nervous I was before my first appointment with him. I knew I needed to share some deeply personal things; things I had never said out loud to another human being. I felt a great deal of shame about some of them but I also knew that he could really only help me if I was completely up front with him. Because he spoke to me with such respect and had such a truly caring sense about him, my gut told me it was OK to divulge my secrets. I'm glad I did. It helped him understand why my numbers were as low as they were and therefore changed the start of my treatment. That meeting, a team was formed and I left that office with a newfound confidence that has been instrumental in my fight with HIV. Wars are never won by individuals, they are won by teams.
After tossing out countless metaphors, I stumbled upon the term, "wingman". Perfect, I thought. Although often used to describe the supportive role a straight man plays in getting his buddy laid, I used Google to dig a bit deeper, and found that within the United States Air Force, there is a real effort to develop an entire wingman culture.
Simply stated, wingman culture emphasizes the importance of each one of us looking out for one another. In an article for the U.S. Air Force Medical Service monthly newswire, Lt. Col. John Stea and Maj. Nicole Frazer explain the role and responsibilities of being a wingman as it applies to aviation and the military. I think it also rings true for the man (my doctor) who helps me manage my disease.
After reading those words, I couldn't help but wonder, "Is that why he's such a good doctor?" I chose him mostly because of his reputation and education but the fact that he spent years as an AIDS activist, that he regularly speaks at classes teaching men how to thrive with HIV and that he went to public Street Fairs to administer Hepatitis A & B vaccines demonstrated to me that this guy was an active part of my community. That means a great deal to someone that's about to embark on a medical partnership that will hopefully last for years.
Like any relationship, it grows more solid as time goes by. You see the other in various situations and watch how they deal with you. I guess that's how trust begins. One of the first big challenges I faced after receiving my diagnosis was finding a physician I not only trusted but one that I connected with, to head up my new "team". I spent weeks contacting everyone I could think of, asking if they knew any doctors, exceptional in the field of HIV with a strong holistic approach. Granted, I live in San Francisco, but burn out is a genuine reality and great doctors are scarce, even here. Let's face it, how many MD's call their patients on a Sunday evening, after the start of antiretrovirals, to make sure that they're doing alright or provide the ability to email them with questions or concerns that may seem trivial to some but not when you're so new at all of this.
In my closing comments to the students, I got a bit choked up when I spoke how much I have grown to trust and value the wingman that has had my back the past two years. I hoped one day each of them might do the same for their own "lead pilot".
Who's got your back?
A Positive Spin
After testing HIV positive in 2007, I promised myself that I would make something "good" from all that I was handed. From the very beginning, each time I was presented with an obstacle or challenge, I also received some help. Usually in the form of a person, sometimes an opportunity; but I have grown so much, it has made it impossible for me to call the past few years "bad." Although I've never written much of anything before, I have been so incredibly fortunate, I feel like I must pay it forward somehow. Maybe by sharing my experience, it will help those starting later in the game, on the fast track to HAART, or anyone that's feeling a bit isolated or "stuck" with their diagnosis.
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