A True AIDE in the Early Days of AIDS
HIV/AIDS has been fatal to tens of millions of persons around the world. In the early 1980s, it led to death for those who contracted it. Yet over the past four decades, treatment and medication have improved to the point that HIV/AIDS is now considered a chronic health condition. While there still is no cure, and once contracted a person will have it for life, it does not necessarily mean that one’s life will be diminished or jeopardized.
A Rehoboth Beach physician was at the forefront of the battle with HIV/AIDS. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, he experienced the deaths of 20+ friends and two others with whom he had a loving relationship. This physician rose to the challenge of caring for those who suffered from it. His name is Dr. Thomas F. Kelly.
Dr. Kelly, or Thom as he prefers, grew up in New York City in a working-class family. His career in healthcare started when he joined the Air Force Reserves in 1981 as a medic; he later went to nursing school at Columbia University, graduating in 1986. Thom recalled caring for people with AIDS as early as 1982 at Bellevue and later Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He recalled in the very early days there were times when staff would refuse to go into the rooms of people with AIDS. Thom notes that three of the six men in his nursing school class died of AIDS. Working at Bellevue as a new RN, he was part of a team that opened a virology clinic; this was one of the first clinics in NYC to start antiretroviral therapy for people with AIDS.
After this professional experience, Thom moved to Beth Israel Medical Center where he was the nursing coordinator for the infectious disease clinic. After that, he held the same position at the Village Nursing Home’s AIDS day treatment program. Here many of his friends and patients began to pass away from AIDS. Due to some connections he had in the medical field, Thom was able to get friends’ samples of blood tested anonymously. At least then they would know for sure what lay ahead.
As he shared, “We were scared. Everyone was afraid to get tested. We knew we were positive if our T cells were low. Within the gay community, circles of friends began caring for one another. We saw our friends head back to the places where they grew up. Most went home to die. What made it worse was that many of them were estranged from their families. A good number died alone.”
Things began to change in the late 1980s and then 1990s, according to Thom. The sheer magnitude of the crisis, the bravery of long-term survivors, the introduction of combination anti-retroviral medications, the spotlight brought about by the celebrities with HIV, the incredible AIDS activism that continues to this date, and the families and friends of those who died who honored the legacies of their fallen loved ones began to turn the tide against stigma, and fewer and fewer people succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
It was during these years that Thom decided, at age 31, to go to medical school. In 1998, he attained Doctor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Right before starting Hopkins, Thom lost his first lover, Anthony; in the middle of medical school, he lost his second lover, Obie. Right about the time he graduated he lost his best friend, Peter.
Thom’s medical years were intertwined with eulogies. Even so, at Hopkins he was president of the Gertrude Stein Society and worked to help introduce gay health into the medical school curriculum. As a medical resident at Brown University, he worked on diarrheal opportunistic infections in pediatric patients with HIV. He also published the first-of-its-kind national survey of US pediatric residency programs on pediatric LGBTQ healthcare access.
In 2000, he became Board Certified in Internal Medicine and decided it was time for a new focus in his medical practice. That year, he decided to work with people with disabilities and moved to Delaware where he worked as chief physician for the Delaware Division of Developmental Disabilities Services. And then 10 years ago, Thom and his life partner, Ahmen Elmanan, decided to open a primary care medical practice. They opened it on December 1, 2011—on World AIDS Day.
As we approach the upcoming World AIDS Day 2021, pause to remember those who are no longer with us. Let’s also congratulate Dr. Thom Kelly’s 10th anniversary of his practice in Rehoboth Beach. He brings compassion to his patients, commitment to equality for all, and conveys hope to those in the LGBTQ community who need it. Dr. Thom Kelly, well done. ▼
David Garrett, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a straight advocate for equality and inclusion. He is also the proud father of an adult trans daughter. Email David Garrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.