In a new documentary, Dr. Anthony Fauci reveals he has PTSD from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Fauci helped treat AIDS patients and oversaw HIV/AIDS research in the 1980s and 90s.
Some Americans saw him as the enemy back then, the way others do now.
Decades before Dr. Anthony Fauci led the US response to COVID-19, he shepherded the country through a different epidemic: the HIV/AIDS crisis.
In 1981, when Fauci was head of a laboratory at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, researchers discovered that a growing group of Americans - predominantly young, gay men - were dying of cancers and infections. Scientists thought a virus might have been the root cause, but it wasn't until 1984 that researchers discovered that HIV leads to a host of life-threatening illnesses now known as AIDS.
Doctors were watching helplessly as patients rapidly deteriorated. Fauci describes the trauma of those cases in a new National Geographic documentary called "Fauci," which is streaming on Disney Plus.
"It was all bad, bad, worse, bad, worse, bad, worse," he says in the film. "It was just so unbelievably frustrating when you're used to being able to fix things and you're just not really fixing anything."
At one moment in the documentary, Fauci cries when remembering an AIDS patient who lost his vision from an infection that destroyed his retina. The man was always upbeat, Fauci says, and would often comment on Fauci's smile.
"One day, we walked in in the morning and I walked up to the desk and he said, 'Who's there?' And it was clear that he had gone completely blind," Fauci says.
When the an interviewer asks why Fauci is so affected by the memory, he replies: "Post-traumatic stress syndrome - that's what it is."
Fauci has been a target of backlash during major health crises
A February study found that nearly a quarter of US healthcare workers show signs of probable PTSD. They had higher odds of PTSD if they reported more media exposure or felt stigmatized because of their profession.
Fauci has endured these stressors for decades. Both the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 crises put him at the center of a charged cultural backlash.
In 1990, the group Act Up protested outside the National Institutes of Health to demand swifter research into HIV/AIDS treatment. Activists accused Fauci of causing AIDS deaths by failing to fastrack clinical trials.
The documentary shows footage from a speech Fauci gave that year at the International AIDS Conference, in which he hinted at how the backlash had affected him.
"Activists are mistaken when they assume that scientists do not care about them," Fauci said. "This is devastating to a physician scientist who has devoted years to AIDS research, particularly when they themselves see so many of their own patients suffering and dying."
In the new film, Fauci watches a clip of that speech and begins to tear up again.
The difference between HIV/AIDS and the current pandemic, he says, is that "divisiveness is dominating COVID-19."
For the last two years, Fauci and his family have been the target of violent threats, predominantly from far-right extremists who argue, falsely, that COVID-19 is a hoax or that vaccines are dangerous. In one of the worst instances of harassment, Fauci received a letter containing white powder. The substance turned out to be harmless, but Fauci feared at the time that it was either anthrax or ricin, a deadly poison.
In the 1990s, scientists and AIDS activists were eventually able to work together to redesign clinical trials. But Fauci is less optimistic about healing the country's divides this time around.
"I think we're going to get through it," he said. "But we're going to get through of it in spite of this divisiveness and this politicization."
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