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    “UCLA in the Time of AIDS” by Dan Gordon, U Magazine

    UCLA Health
    The Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards: Solicited Articles - Gold
    Best in Show Winner

    “UCLA in the Time of AIDS,” published in two parts in the Fall 2021 and Winter 2022 issues of U magazine, used the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the identification of the mysterious illness that would become known as AIDS by a young UCLA physician at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to recount the university’s four-decade engagement with the disease. Through interviews with physicians and scientists at the forefront of UCLA’s fight against HIV/AIDS, both then and now, as well as the reflections of a long-term survivor diagnosed in 1984, the series traces both the scientific challenges and the social stigma that had to be overcome in transforming what was once a death sentence into a treatable chronic illness. The series recounts lessons learned from the 40-year struggle, as well as mistakes repeated in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, before discussing the ongoing challenges 37 years after scientific leaders predicted an imminent vaccine — one that remains elusive.

    What was the most impactful part of your entry?
    The entry interspersed humanity and science, juxtaposing the human impact of AIDS and the barriers erected by bigotry and lack of political will to address the AIDS epidemic with the vexing scientific and clinical challenges that UCLA and other leading institutions faced. It opens with the experience of Tom Gillman, a gay man who, with his partner, ran a seasonal shop on New York’s Fire Island Pines, a gay mecca in an era of rampant homophobia. It brings readers back to the summer when the carefree, party atmosphere at this gay mecca became tinged with unexplained illness and loss as the still undefined illness began to ravage the community. It then moves to the halls of UCLA Medical Center, recounting the experiences of UCLA immunologist Dr. Michael Gottlieb as he attempted to make sense of the illness overtaking young gay men. The piece returns to Gillman as he, too, contracts the illness and is treated by a young UCLA physician who would ultimately lead the UCLA AIDS Institute, Dr. Ronald Mitsuyasu. Under Mitsuyasu’s care, Gillman beats the odds and perseveres — and the piece ends with Gillman’s emotional final visit to see Mitsuyasu on the last day of the doctor’s clinical practice as he moved into retirement.

    What challenge did you overcome?
    Even when limited to UCLA’s role, doing justice to the 40-year history and continuing story of one of the most profound health crises of our time was, to put it mildly, challenging. The piece had to weave together the accounts of 11 interview subjects in a way that covered the major aspects of the story — scientific, clinical, social, political — while providing a compelling narrative. In the end, the editorial team believed we succeeded by keeping the reader’s experience top of mind in decisions about the piece’s structure and tone. In that sense, the Gillman story arc, combined with the heartwarming nature of his relationship with one of UCLA’s leading AIDS physicians, provided an ideal frame and backdrop for depicting the breathtaking scientific and medical progress that UCLA helped to usher in.

    David Greenwald