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December 2009

December 1st is Worlds AIDS Day. Following JWA's lead, we would like to highlight the life of Dr. Abby Shevitz, advocate in the global fight against AIDS. We bring you her biography below, with great thanks to our source, Jewish Women's Archive. The article on Dr. Shevitz's AIDS work can be found here

Abby Shevitz

1959-2005

Dr. Abby Shevitz grew up in the Jewish suburb of Pikesville, outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Her family considered itself culturally Jewish, but was not formally affiliated with a synagogue. Dr. Shevitz brought the lesson of compassion, learned from her parents, to her career at Boston City Hospital (BCH). She became a strong advocate for her HIV-infected patients, providing a much-needed caring heart to a poor and disadvantaged population.

Serving as Resident Physician and one of the first female Chief Residents at BCH, Dr. Shevitz broke important new ground by developing an AIDS curriculum to teach the BCH staff about how to care for AIDS patients. Abby went on to help develop the first HIV Testing Protocol at a time when there were no existing guidelines.

In 1994, Dr. Shevitz earned a Masters Degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. She published early work demonstrating that, among young people, AIDS predominantly strikes women. In 1996 Dr. Shevitz joined the faculty of the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine where she spearheaded research into the nutritional problems and lipodystrophy associated with HIV infection. Dr. Shevitz gained an international reputation through her work running the Body Composition Analysis Center at Tufts.

The two key Jewish values of education and compassion informed Dr. Shevitz's home life, community life, research, and advocacy work. Until her death in 2005 after a long battle with lung cancer, Abby lived in Sharon with her husband and son, and had become active in her synagogue, taking her first Torah study class. 

Dr. Shevitz Quotes:

On Jewish values;

"Two key Jewish values play a very important part [in my work]: education and compassion, just caring, loving, giving. Those things were extremely important in my family. Tying those together in medicine was the perfect way."

"I feel very strongly Jewish and guided by being a person of the book, an academic, as well as having a strong feeling for tzedakah and giving. So my Judaism definitely influences my work."

On role models;

"My mother was certainly the role model for compassion and caring. She was tremendously open about how she felt and about hearing how we felt. She was an unbelievable listener. She always made time for us. Friends in high school would call her to talk to her because they just knew she was a good listener, and interested in what people were doing. That was around me all the time, that warmth and caring. She taught me a lot of openness. My father did too. My father was a very funny, entertaining, irreverent man... his heart was incredibly warm and he was a wonderful, warm, open man. My parents wanted the most and the best for me, my sister, and my brother. Because of their models, I always felt that all people were equally deserving of love, regardless of anything in their lives."
 
"A lot of my friends' parents were physicians, but I really never had a [professional] role model. That's been one of the more frustrating parts of my career. I'm always searching for a role model. I really had to define myself over time. I wish I had more of a role model. I was the first woman in my family to go to college, and I went to MIT of all places. I was certainly encouraged by my family, but there was nothing to imitate. I've never followed a previously laid trail. These were all things I really wanted to do. They just came from inside." 

On being a woman activist;

"Certainly being compassionate and having the caring side is more of a woman's thing than a man's thing. And that motherly compassion has always been such an important part of my career and advocacy."

Abby never felt discriminated against. "The only thing I felt was the lack of women role models or mentors. If I'd had a personal role model, I might have proceeded faster or with a stronger sense of direction, rather than trying to find my own way." 

On work and family;

"Until I had my son, I spent as much time as I possibly could toward my career and my advocacy. Now I spend a lot of time with my son. It has not been as important for me to work seventy hours per week and climb to the level of full professorship as I had anticipated." 

On path to activism;

"I've never thought of myself as an activist. I think the word I would use is advocate. That's what I've always done in my career. That started very young for me, as an advocate for a family member who had some challenges."

"I'm a person who rises to the occasion. I think that if there is need around me, and I feel I can do something about, I will see it as my responsibility to accomplish that."

"I always wanted to be one of these people who traveled internationally and save the Third World. I never did that. But I've done it on a different scale, closer to home. All of my patients, since the beginning of my work, involved people who are impoverished, many of them homeless, many of them addicted to drugs, most have horribly abusive backgrounds; their stories are horrible. They all responded so incredibly positively to someone who genuinely cared about them. Patients said, 'No one has ever shown that they cared about me.' Imagine that they didn't have that ever in their lives. The first time they heard that was from a doctor at a time when they had a fatal illness." 

On impact on self;

"The way I define myself is as a person who cares a lot and tries to really show that compassion. To show people that I don't see myself as above them or separate from them, even though I lived outside Boston City Hospital. People open wide up. They're unbelievably grateful, even for ten minutes in the office. I wish more doctors did this. But they don't. Some do. I've always seen it as an important part of my job, and at home, too, letting people know that I'm available to them; open to them; that I care about them."

"I think that most people don't realize just how severe things are right around us...how horrible some day-to-day lives can be, here in the environment of Boston. I love the idea that the hospital and I personally could provide as good care and attention to people regardless of the fact that they had never known true comfort or inner contentment. I didn't have to go far, but I chose the hospital that was the most challenging."

Abby and her husband introduce the message to their son to "treat all people well, understand their shortcomings and don't penalize them for them." 

On challenges;

"I had always hoped to do more and expected more of myself. I always wanted to do more research; break the field open, discover the cure. I've always been a little disappointed in my scientific success, and I've blamed that, in part, on my lack of mentorship and career direction." 

On rewards;

"By far the most rewarding is seeing a smile on people's face and their thankfulness for my attention for what I'm doing for just being there. Just knowing that I've made a difference to them inside, that I've touched them."

"But feeling good about what I'm doing for people as individuals makes me satisfied about what I've done overall. It makes me feel that I've been very successful on some level to people, even though maybe I did not accomplish this huge ideal I set for myself a long time ago." 

On advice for activists;

"The first thing is to get a good mentor early on and discuss your ideas with her. Really plan ahead."

"Never compromise on the level of quality that you expect from yourself and from others. And teach others what they need."

"I absolutely encourage women to get involved in science and mathematics. There are wonderful programs to educate doctors to be more compassionate human beings. But to a large extent it comes from inside... To really take the time to sit and talk and listen is that has made it meaningful for me. I don't know if enjoying that can be taught."

"Having a good mother helped!"

Abby stands behind her advice and her compassion. In the last year, Abby has become very involved with an organization called the Treehouse Foundation. The goal is to get children out of the foster care system in Massachusetts and into adoptive family homes. The elderly in the community are involved as adoptive grandparents with the children as well. "It's the same community [as the Boston City Hospital population]. These kids are from abusive, addicted, impoverished backgrounds. If their lives can be permanently changed early, they could become happy and productive adults... These are kids who need something, and there is something I feel I can do."

"When I see adults so traumatized, I think how can I change their lives. But it is a bit late for so many of them. The way to do it is to start with healthy childhoods. Maybe there is a way to turn some lives around now. 

Credit for this page goes to Jewish Women's Archive.