Dentist treats AIDS patients through the decades

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Today is World AIDS Day, an annual global health campaign to raise awareness about the AIDS pandemic.

Nearly four decades ago, there were few doctors willing to take on patients suffering from the baffling new disease.

Early on in Dr. Robert Testo’s career, the AIDS epidemic unfolded.

Undeterred by fear, the dentist openly accepted patients with the virus.  His colleagues said it would ruin his business.

“They would say, ‘okay, but you can’t let anybody know.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean you can’t let people know? That’s stupid. If people don’t know, they won’t know where to go.”

In the early 1980s, people infected with the disease were ostracized.

Barred from school, evicted from their homes, and most doctors refused to treat them.

Fear ran rampant but Testo took an oath as a dentist and he wasn’t about to back out now.

“We felt, I felt, my sister, did come around eventually because I had to say to her, ‘well what if it was our brother? My brother, her brother—would we not treat him?”

Activists demanded more research and awareness. Groups formed the Alliance for Positive Health to support people who, at the time, were given a death sentence.

“We would help them pretty much die. A lot of family members left their loved ones who were HIV positive, friends abandoned them. We would go to the hospital, hold their hand. It was like a buddy system and we would help them kind of live out their last few days,” Bill Faragon, Executive Director Alliance for Positive Health, said.

Now the alliance helps people live with HIV and many other chronic diseases.

Dr. Testo’s practice is still going strong after 40 years, a nod to his care and his courage – though he shrugs off any recognition.

“I never felt like it was something heroic. I always felt like the profession had an obligation to address it in the right way, which was, take care of these people.”

In the early days of AIDS care, most doctors and nurses didn’t wear gloves!

The crisis transformed the handling of blood, and today there are preventative medicines.

Doctors are hopeful a vaccine will come next.

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