By Sara Guando
This July, LIAAC congratulates President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Gail Barouh, for her incredible career with LIAAC and noble service to the Long Island community. As she begins her retirement we offer sincere gratitude to Dr. Barouh for her dedication and knowledge, leading the agency in successfully navigating the grips of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and expansion into a service provider for many other infectious and chronic diseases. Dr. Barouh recently sat down to look back on her 31-year journey with LIAAC, and provide her insight on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In 1986, America was in the midst of the nation’s most infamous epidemic. New York had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the nation, and though largely considered “a New York City problem,” the epidemic was rapidly taking its toll on Long Island. It was at this time the Long Island Association for AIDS Care (LIAAC), the nation’s first suburban-based AIDS service organization was founded. Dr. Gail Barouh, President and Chief Executive Officer of LIAAC since its inception, recalls people showing up at hospitals for care and being “put in cabs to go elsewhere,” and refers to this as a time of great prejudice, and more than prejudice, a time of tremendous fear. Looking back, she recalls that a large part of the fight against HIV/ AIDS came down to being a long education process, both for families and medical providers.
Dr. Barouh took her background in health education, and the diagnosis of a personal friend, as motivation to facilitate the first Long Island support and bereavement groups for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, as well as family members, loved ones, and friends of those infected. During a time of great adversity towards a disease that was not fully understood, and targeted populations of people believed to be responsible for it, Dr. Barouh envisioned an agency that would not only combat stigma, but assist individuals in navigating obstacles for necessary services. Dr. Barouh states that in developing LIAAC, the needs of HIV/AIDS patients were “too great” for LIAAC to be a walk-in facility. With this foresight, LIAAC developed a hotline to rapidly screen questions and created a mobile unit that would assist people within their own communities. In doing this, LIAAC was able to ensure optimal support, medical attention, and quality of life throughout Long Island. Both of these programs still exist and have proven to be invaluable in connecting people with support and help. LIAAC remains Long Island’s only bi-county, comprehensive community service-provider, with the region’s only HIV/AIDS Hotline.
It would be easy to say there is no bright side to an epidemic that has affected an immeasurable number of people throughout the world. However, with more than three decades of experience, Dr. Barouh states that there is a silver lining. First, with intense activism in the early days, people did not tolerate the amount of time it took to test drugs. Therefore, lifesaving medication was fast-tracked, a big step for HIV/AIDS, as well as other diseases such as cancer and hepatitis. Additionally, Dr. Barouh believes that rights for the LGBTQ community would not have reached the progression towards equality of today had it not been for HIV/AIDS. Prior to the epidemic “people lived in the shadows” but began coming out of the shadows and into the public eye because they were sick, and caring for loved ones who were sick. As a result, families and society started to see the LGBTQ population “as real people and a real community.” In this way, HIV/AIDS gave people the ability to be more themselves and overcome discrimination.
Since 1986, Dr. Barouh states that she has seen both positive and negative changes in the epidemic, and in society. She fears young people will fall into the cyclical nature of disease, in that currently the atmosphere of HIV/AIDS is that “most people think it’s not a problem anymore.” Advances in medication and technology have been invaluable to those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, extending life expectancy and calming the panic of the disease. However, that does not make the disease devoid of hardships. Dr. Barouh reminds us that being on medication for HIV is a lifetime responsibility, and there is an extreme toll that the disease takes on the body.
Today, LIAAC has become a premier agency in educating the region about inaccuracies surrounding HIV/AIDS, preventive measures to diminish the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as other infectious diseases. As a pioneer for suburban-based service providers, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Dr. Barouh’s expertise and compassion is irreplaceable. With Dr. Barouh’s guidance, LIAAC navigated a difficult path to success, and continues to serve as a role model agency of perseverance, diversity, and adaptability both regionally, and nationally. With unending gratitude, LIAAC wishes Dr. Barouh much happiness and success in all of her future endeavors.