Washington Post Examines History of Whitman Walker Clinic
The Washington Post on Tuesday examined the history of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a not-for-profit community health organization in Washington, D.C., that runs special programs for people living with HIV/AIDS. The clinic recently sold its property for $8 million to "beat back mounting debt," the Post reports, adding that the organization will continue to operate in a new, smaller space two blocks from the old location. The clinic currently serves about 10,000 clients, 3,400 of whom are living with HIV. According to the Post, the sale of the clinic's property "was just another real estate deal among many," and the move is a "kind of requiem" for the people who have been involved with the clinic.
Whitman-Walker purchased its former property in 1986 for $1.25 million. Jim Graham -- a lawyer who was Whitman-Walker's executive director for 14 years and currently is a district council member -- made the purchase to "launch a full scale defense for AIDS patients: medical, dental, psychological and legal services," the Post reports. Graham said, "You took great satisfaction in doing what you could do, but you knew the suffering was horrific. It affected everything you did." The Post reports that the clinic "desperately needed money" to provide services to people living with the virus, and "when other institutions wanted nothing to do with AIDS" then-Mayor Marion Barry and the Meyer Foundation were the earliest financial supporters of the clinic, in addition to the gay community, which covered almost half of the operating costs through donations.
According to the Post, the clinic had a staff of 34 with 700 volunteers by 1987 and was able to hire a full-time lawyer and open a food bank. The clinic in 1987 "could not provide the most elusive antidote: medicine to stop or cure the virus"; however, that same year treatment and prevention of pneumocystis pneumonia -- which is often fatal in people living with AIDS -- was found in aerosol pentamidine and Bactrim tablets, and the first FDA-approved antiretroviral drug -- zidovudine, also known as AZT -- was made available to people living with the virus.
According to the Post, the clinic began to apply for grant money totaling $3 million in 1991. About 10 years into the epidemic, the clinic had treated 2,600 clients, of which 1,600 had died. The Post reports that education about AIDS "had calmed some of the paranoia, but not all," and that "race was a tricky complication." Barbara Chin, a clinic staff member, said, "The white boys had gotten to the point where they said, 'I'm gay and to hell with you.' African-Americans were afraid that someone would label them HIV. This was their home town."
The Post reports that in the early 1990s, many of the clinic's clients were entering into clinical research trials in an attempt to increase their life expectancies. Patricia Hawkins, a psychologist and social worker with the clinic since 1984, said the participants "are the unsung heroes of the epidemic. It was all about the people who would come later. And they were right." By 1994, the clinic had purchased additional property and expanded its operations, and the clinic "that used to represent death adjusted to caring for people living long-term with HIV," according to the Post.
However, the clinic recently has experienced financial difficulties as the issue of HIV has become "more of a poverty issue," the Post reports. The clinic's staff has been reduced from 252 to 173 employees, with additional restructuring expected. Hawkins said that data scheduled to be released soon will show that HIV prevalence in the district is increasing. "I wake up every day fearing that a new, faster, more virulent form of this virus will hit us," Hawkins said (Hull, Washington Post, 12/16).