Chances are, if you’ve been in Charlotte for a while you’ve heard of Wesley Thompson.
He’s been around town for a number of years, along with his partner Trey Owen. The two made the decision to call Charlotte home in 1997.
Thompson is well-known by his colleagues and in the LGBTQ community for his expertise and knowledge with HIV care, and as the HIV Medical Director at Amity Medical Group.
In a career that has touched parts of five different decades (and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon) he recently was nominated and received the 2021 America’s Top PA award in HIV/AIDS treatment.
“I was surprised that I was nominated,” Thompson offers. “I love what I do, but I was a little taken aback when I stopped to think I was chosen by a group of more than 400,000 nurses that collaborate on care and advocacy.”
As for actually winning, Thompson’s reaction is sincere and modest. “I am honored and humbled I was chosen,” he says.
Coming from an expert so revered for his knowledge of treatment options for HIV, his reply may seem a bit understated. But that’s just Thompson. His top concerns and priorities are always with the patients.
Reflecting back on his career, Thompson is aware of what led him to where he is today.
While furthering his education as a grad student at Duke University Hospital, Thompson met his first AIDS patient there in the 1980s. “I watched a nurse refuse to treat him,” he recalls. “She threw her badge down and said ‘I refuse to touch those people,’ so I went into his room instead.
“There was this small little guy, gay – and clearly not doing very well. Back in those days, the gloves you wore to take samples of blood were thick and difficult to work with, so I removed them and put my hand on his arm.
“He was obviously nervous and very upset. When I touched him, he responded with, ‘Don’t touch me. I’ve got it. I’ve got AIDS.’ He was afraid he could somehow infect me just by contact,” Thompson recalls.
He explained to the young man that he was gay, too. He was there to help, and it wasn’t possible for him to infect another person just by letting someone touch him. “When we were finished I told him I needed to go to class and I would stop by later and check on him, I pulled my respirator down, gave him a kiss on the forehead and told him I would see him after I finished supper.
“By the time I got back, the room was empty. The charge nurse ran up to me and said ‘I want you to know he told me what you did. You were the last person to touch him, and actually treat him like a human.”
Thompson confirms that from the beginning, when the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed, he was frightened. In the early years he would work with HIV-positive patients in intake, but would refer to them over to physicians for primary care. That would change when he encountered a young blond man who resembled someone he had dated previously, minus a substantial amount of weight loss. When he realized the patient and his former boyfriend were one in the same, he agreed to work with him directly.
Medications prescribed to treat cases of full-blown AIDS during that time could often have a negative impact on an already weakened individual’s health. Drugs like AZT and pentamidine frequently left fragile and immune depleted patients feeling far worse than they were prior to treatment.
“I remember during his sixth treatment he was shaking so badly I sat and held him. I had done that before, but this time the shaking stopped, and he just passed away in my arms,” Thompson recalls. “It was another one of those moments that was life-changing, and it made me realize I was somewhere I was supposed to be. I was needed.”
Over the next twenty years or so, new drug treatments would become available. Eventually, combination “cocktail” medications proved to be successful, and led to the capability of suppressing an HIV-positive individual’s viral load to undetectable.
And undetectable means incapable of passing on an infection.
“So we’ve seen patients go from this state of fighting to survive, to actually thriving, and living long, full lives,” says Thompson, who serves as the co-lead of Mecklenburg County’s Getting to Zero Campaign, which is designed to eliminate new HIV infections by 2030.
“We have a cure,” says Thompson. “It’s knowledge. It’s called PEP, PrEP and TasP.”
Thompson explains the concept: PEP means immediate Post Exposure Prophylaxis (drug treatment within 72 hours), PrEP is Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (medication taken before potential exposure) and TasP (Treatment as Prevention, which means an ongoing regimen to prevent the possibility of infection).
“I believe we can get there,” says Thompson. “If we can educate people so they use the medications we have, we can finally stop the epidemic in its tracks.”