March 23, 2019 3:07 pm

Pioneering doctor at forefront of HIV/AIDS treatment in Winnipeg to retire

Dr. Dick Smith next to a new AED machine in his clinic in 2017.

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A prominent Winnipeg doctor who helped lead the fight against AIDS and HIV in the ’80s is retiring after 52 years of practice.

Dr. Dick Smith, Medical Director of Our Own Health Centre at 230 Osborne St., said it was the city’s first health clinic to serve the male gay community.

Smith, 75, was also one of the first Winnipeg doctors to treat people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in the community, he said.

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“The first two cases that were diagnosed in the city were patients who had returned from Toronto to Winnipeg,” he said. “Those early days were really terrible.”

With no blood tests available to quickly and correctly discover HIV, doctors had to be cognizant of the symptoms to properly diagnose, he said.

“They had enlarged lymph glands,” he said. “With these enlarged lymph glands and a few other symptoms and some changes in their blood, I knew that this was the beginnings of the condition which would eventually lead to AIDS.”

In the beginning, no one knew for sure how HIV spread, said Smith. Some thought it was pills, some thought it was sharing glasses or malnutrition.

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Once that was figured out, the early days of HIV were difficult and terrifying, with misinformation and fear running rampant. The first years of trying different treatments were harmful in some cases, said Smith.

He estimates about 100 of his patients died over the years.

The first class of drugs used were used at highly toxic doses, said Smith, and it took years before it was discovered that lower doses were just as effective. But then HIV developed a resistance to that class of drugs, and so more were needed.

“And now … there is six medications, that you just take one pill a day and it contains the three meds which you know will treat your HIV for the day,” said Smith.

“And providing you pop your pill a day, everything is fine, and the virus is suppressed, you can have unprotected sex, you can have children. So things have changed very dramatically, yes.”

Smith initially retired several years ago at the age of 65, but continued to look after a few patients. From there, the idea for Our Own Health Centre was born.

“It gradually built up from a quite part-time thing initially,” he said.

 

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The clinic has recently moved from its first location on McDermot Street downtown to Osborne Village at Confusion Corner in an effort to expand not only their care and services to gay and bisexual men, but to the general community at large.

“Our focus has been on gay men,” with the goal to develop expertise in HIV/AIDS and other problems men who have sex with men face said Smith,

“So just as some women are perfectly happy to be looked after by their general practitioner, other women may prefer an obstetrician or gynecologist, and some women would prefer a female to a male.

“So our thought was there would be some gay men who would prefer to get their health care from another gay man,” said Smith.

This time his retirement will be permanent, said Smith. His partner of 41 years, Doug Arrell, is ill, he added.

In the meantime, the clinic is hoping to add at least four or five more staff, but finding doctors has been a slow process.

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