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Haig Donabedian: Finding a Medical Niche

A 1967 Westinghouse finalist's project focused on ecology and crayfish, but his career aspirations led him to treat HIV/AIDS
Haig Donabedian



Haig Donabedian

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His finalist year: 1967

His finalist project: Studying how crayfish react to different ecological niches

What led to the project: Haig Donabedian learned about science close-up from an early age. His father, public health expert Avedis Donabedian, moved the family from Lebanon to the U.S. (and ultimately to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) when Donabedian was six-years-old to further his academic career.

Haig, too, thought research was worthwhile. The summer before his senior year of high school, in 1966, he attended a summer science training program at the University of Nevada, Reno. ("It was the closest I ever came to summer camp," he says.) The students spent time hiking around the various ecological niches of Nevada, from the desert to Lake Tahoe. For his independent project, he decided to study how animals adapt to those different niches.

Specifically, he studied how crayfish in Lake Tahoe reacted to various osmotic pressures—that is, the difference between salt concentrations in two bodies of water. He changed the amount of salt in the water, and measured oxygen consumption. It turned out "it had been done before," Donabedian says. "I was just an ignorant little high school kid." But when he entered the project in the 1967 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he was named a finalist.

The effect on his career: Donabedian credits his Westinghouse honor with helping him gain admission to Yale University. However, he had decided on a career long before he studied crayfish. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., he had contracted mumps and became totally deaf in his right ear as a result. The experience gave him an enduring fascination with infectious diseases.

At Yale he studied biology and chemistry, then enrolled in the school's MD/PhD program. He eventually decided to skip the PhD part; he finished medical school and did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Donabedian landed at the National Institutes of Health for four years (1978 to 1982) studying patients with immune deficiencies and then began working at a hospital that ultimately became part of the University of Toledo.

Originally, he meant to build a research practice in addition to caring for patients. But two things conspired to send him in a different direction: His wife died of ovarian cancer in 1988, leaving him as a time-strapped single father of two young children. And, as an infectious disease specialist with expertise in immune deficiencies, in the mid- to late 1980s, he began seeing case after case of extremely sick, dying young men. As the rest of the country would later learn, the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and caring for these patients soon left him with no time for running a lab.

Years later, it's hard to remember the panic that HIV/AIDS first caused. At the time, recalls Sue Carter, a social worker at the University of Toledo, "HIV had people scared to death"—including some health care providers. But Donabedian was "the first physician in Toledo to work with these people. He never had a problem." He would go on television and assure people that "there is nothing to be afraid of." He also assured HIV/AIDS patients that his hospital would care for them, even when other places didn't want to. "Not only did he set the tone for our hospital, he set the tone for the community," Carter says.

For years, HIV/AIDS care was bleak business. In the absence of effective treatments, Donabedian could do little for his patients medically; for awhile he was losing three to four patients a month. But he did what he could in other ways, including serving on the board of a local charity called David's House Compassion that provided shelter and social services to patients. The Ohio Department of Health honored him with one of its AIDS Awareness Week service awards in 2005 for his ability to see "patients as people (not as their disease)" and also for the fact that "he recognized from early on, that the entire person might require care, not just treatment for their HIV," according to spokesman Kristopher Weiss.

What he's doing now: Treating people with AIDS is a very different matter now than it was in the 1980s. New antiretroviral therapies have made HIV/AIDS quite treatable—"a tremendous example of what the human intellect can do to convert fatal diseases to more manageable ones," he says. That meant seeing patients was "no longer really an infectious disease interaction. It was more of a social interaction" in which he cajoled patients to take their medicines and followed up to make sure they were doing so.

Perhaps, paradoxically, that made his work less compelling. "I didn't miss the dying part," he says, but "it got to the point that it was no longer that interesting." That, coupled with decades of working long hours, led him to retire this past August, at the age of 58. "I love sleeping every night and I love not going to work on weekends," he says, as well as swimming and catching up on movies.

He might go back to work at some point, he notes, "if I run out of foreign films to see."

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