The Battle Against HIV/AIDS in Mexico
by Marene Gustin
Young adults in Houston’s LGBT community today don’t remember rotary phones (if they remember land lines at all), fold-out street maps, turntables, or pet rocks. And, thankfully, they don’t remember a time when no one knew how “the gay cancer” spread, or a time when parents would throw HIV-infected children out on the streets.
But that was still the attitude Dr. Gordon Crofoot found when he visited Mexico’s Yucatán in 2005. “I met with doctors and healthcare officials,” Dr. Crofoot says, “and found there was a need there. The incidence of HIV in the villages is just unknown. No one had ever done testing there.”
So, with his friend John Truax of the Angeles de Merida Bed and Breakfast, he helped found the nonprofit Brazos Abiertos, Inc. Based in Houston, the organization, whose name means open arms in Spanish, has a facility in Yucatán for HIV education and prevention, and is currently building a medical office. Brazos Abiertos also offers counseling, anonymous HIV testing, and peer-to-peer HIV and safe-sex workshops in neighboring Mayan villages.
On April 9, the organization is hosting Comida y Amigos (an evening of food, friends, and fabulous art) in Houston as a tribute to Dr. Crofoot and to raise funds for the work in Mexico.
Dr. Crofoot is no stranger to the pandemic. He graduated with honors from Michigan State University, did his residency in internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, was named chief medical resident at St. Luke’s Hospital, and worked at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic before starting his private practice in internal medicine. “As a young doctor in the late ’70s, I was a little bored treating headaches and colds,” he recalls. “In 1981 I started to see the first AIDS cases. I had two patients then. I watched this disease since before it had a name until now, when it’s become treatable.”
Today he is considered a specialist in HIV/AIDS, a member of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, an international speaker on the subject of HIV/AIDS, and the former director of Houston’s Montrose Clinic.
It was in 1992 that he gave a lecture about the hope offered by new HIV drugs. It was a lecture attended by a young government doctor from Yucatán who returned to Mexico extolling the benefits of the drugs. Unfortunately, the government at the time felt HIV/AIDS patients were immoral. Not only would they not assist in importing the drugs, they fired the doctor and closed his clinic. “He lost his job and his wife left him,” says Dr. Crofoot. “I met him on that first trip to Yucatán, although I didn’t know the impact I had had in changing the culture there until later. So, I felt it was just fate that we start Brazos Abiertos.”
Today, the attitude on HIV/AIDS is changing fast in that Mexican state, due in part to the nonprofit and its dedicated volunteers who hold testing and education programs on Friday nights in the town square.
One of the most successful programs has been Teenage Education on AIDS in Merida, Mexico (TEAMM). The program has sent teams of U.S. high school and college students to Mexico to educate the young people there. “They put together the program themselves,” says Dr. Crofoot. “They used games to educate their peers. The U.S. team trained the Yucatán team, and now those young people are training others.” Doing more than just spreading hope and information, many of the Mexican youth trained by the TEAMM project are changing their own lives. Empowered by their involvement, 11 young people from remote Mayan villages are now in college in the cities, and four of them are in law school. “These kids are just tremendous. I feel like a proud dad,” Dr. Crofoot says.
And he should. One of the primary goals of Brazos Abiertos is to empower the Mexican people to take control of the pandemic themselves. A goal that Dr. Crofoot says he saw realized on his most recent trip to Yucatán. “The local volunteers were doing the counseling and testing,” he says. “I looked around and realized I was the only gringo there! Here I was, ‘the specialist,’ and they didn’t even need me—they were doing all the work themselves.”
As for being honored at the upcoming fundraiser, Dr. Crofoot looks at the acclaim another way. “In 34 years of practice,” he says, “I’ve treated almost 10,000 HIV/AIDS patients. I’ve lost 3,000. By dying, they entrusted me with their knowledge. They were my teachers, and they taught me how to treat this disease. They are the ones being honored.”
What: Comida y Amigos (an evening of food, friends and fabulous art)
When: April 9, 2011
Tickets: $125 (limited to 125 people), available by e-mail at [email protected]
Info or to donate online: hivyucatan.org.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.