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December 17, 2013

A doctor's legacy

Once-condemned doctor turns to helping Haitians

NORTH MIAMI, Fla. (AP) — It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when a mysterious autoimmune disease baffled doctors and frightened a world unfamiliar with what is now called AIDS. Arthur Fournier recalls the rise of the epidemic far better than most. In some ways it made him. In others, it nearly broke him. Above all, it helped define the rest of his life.

In 1979, Fournier was a young doctor at Miami's public hospital when patients exhibiting the symptoms of AIDS began flooding in — only these patients weren't gay men, who accounted for many early cases of the disease. Rather, they were Haitian.

Confounded, Fournier and some of his colleagues soon published a study about what they were seeing among their Haitian patients, concluding "it is possible that this syndrome ... is the same as that found among homosexual men."

Their work would go a long way toward helping the medical community better understand how AIDS spread, but it also had unintended consequences: Just being Haitian was initially listed by the federal government as a risk factor for AIDS, along with heroin use, hemophilia and homosexuality — a macabre "4-H club," as it became known.

For years, discrimination and recrimination against Haitians ensued. Fournier and the other doctors were blasted for committing bad science, asking biased questions, failing to employ Haitian Creole translators when talking with their patients and targeting an immigrant community derided as "boat people."

Now, some 35 years later, Fournier is one of the Haitian community's biggest champions: A man whose early missteps led to a career dedicated to improving access to medical care for Haitians in Miami and back home.

"I think I believe in reincarnation, and I'm convinced he was Haitian in a different life, because he has given and done so much for Haiti and the Haitian community," says Dr. Marie-Denise Gervais, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami who works with Fournier in a network of school-based health clinics.

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