At the Red Ribbon Dinner last weekend, 48 of Dr. Louis Katz’s former patients were there to see him receive the first-ever award that shares his name. Many of those people are still alive because of him.
That's why The Project of the Quad-Cities, a nonprofit that provides services to those affected by HIV or AIDS, has honored the physician by launching the Dr. Louis Katz Advocacy Award. At the Project’s 25th annual Red Ribbon Dinner last weekend, the nonprofit gave the first-ever award to its namesake.
When the first case of AIDS was confirmed in the Quad-Cities in the 1980s, Katz was the only one infectious disease specialist in the area.
At a time when some hospitals, doctors and nurses were afraid or refused to see AIDS patients, Katz went out looking for people suffering from the disease. He dropped by their homes when they were too sick to make it to the hospital. If they didn’t have insurance, he found a way to treat them anyway.
“These are people that were dying,” Katz said. “If somebody asked me to make a bet 20 years ago that I’d be able to have a glass of wine with some of those people, I would’ve borrowed a lot of money to bet against it.”
The Red Ribbon Dinner reminded Katz, he said, how bad things were in the beginning. What came to his mind were the lyrics of “Truckin’,” a song by the Grateful Dead, which say, “Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.”
“There were guys my age dying," Katz said. “You really had to be there to see it. That's what it was — A long strange trip.”
At some point during the three decades, Katz treated hundreds of AIDS patients in the Quad-Cities, he became known simply as "Dr. AIDS.”
“He was the pioneer in the Quad-City area when it came to responding to the HIV epidemic,” Andrea Meirick, executive director of the Project, said. “He led with the human component first. When very little was known about the disease, he said, ‘Let’s learn more about this.’ And it made a difference.”
Katz, a Davenport native and graduate of the University of Iowa, is currently serving as the chief medical officer of America's Blood Centers. He formerly was the executive vice president of Medical Affairs of the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center in Davenport.
Looking back at his work treating and combating AIDS in the area, Katz is quick to say he was simply doing what he was trained to do. He is also quick to say he was part of a team.
“It was my job and I was the only guy in town,” Katz said. “At the end of the day, in health care, these sorts of teams require someone with a medical degree to sign stuff. They need somebody with M.D. after their name.”
Early on, that team included Sandee Millage, who started her first nursing job at the former St. Luke's Hospital in Davenport the same year the HIV epidemic reached the Quad-Cities. Together, Katz and Millage cared for patients at St. Luke’s. They created a safe haven for patients, many of whom were marginalized by the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS.
“If anything distinguishes me from anyone else, it’s that we were doing it alone for the better part of three decades,” Katz said. “Sandee and I were there from start to finish essentially with nearly every patient in the metro area.”
On the note of the stigma, Katz said, “It was never about that. It just pissed us off.”
It was all about caring for sick people and trying to save lives, he said.
“For the first 13 or 14 years, it was like a death sentence,” Katz said.
And, as Millage said, there weren’t many treatment options.
“We could kind of put a Band-Aid on it, but these patients were in and out of the hospital until they died,” she said.
Meanwhile, Katz was “prepared to combat the virus,” she said. He was on call 24/7 and in communication with hundreds of patients at a time.
Their work laid the foundation for the Genesis Health System to open the Community Health Care Virology Clinic, what Millage calls “a one-stop shop for many of the patients we were seeing,” in 1995. In the next year or so, more and better options became available for treating AIDS. Katz said “it was like turning on a light switch.”
The Red Ribbon celebration also reminded Katz how much treatment for AIDS and HIV has improved since those early days.
“We’ve gone from a vicious, universally lethal infection to one that can be controlled with a pill a day and some good sense,” he said. “That’s a huge difference.”
For Millage, the award is a way to ensure Katz's legacy is remembered for years to come.
“He did so much for so many,” she said. “It’s heartwarming to me that even though we lost so many, there are so many people still going strong because of Dr. Katz.”