There was a great announcement at a recent news conference in Baton Rouge. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome proclaimed that the city no longer led the nation in something really bad.
Standing at a podium, surrounded by a number of people in the health care community, Broome said the number of cases of HIV had dropped so much in recent years that Baton Rouge had fallen from No. 1 to No. 10 in the country for new cases of HIV.
She attributed the good news to a huge rise in the amount of HIV testing provided at local hospitals.
It was truly a hallelujah moment for my hometown. Way to go, Baton Rouge. But there was something — someone — missing for me. I wondered where my friend Dr. Leah Cullins was. I didn’t see her in the background.
The assistant professor in the Southern University School of Nursing has been fighting in the local trenches, dealing with diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS for years.
I met her when she was a 20-something assistant professor. I discovered that she and others were camping out on dark streets and going into nightclubs preaching the gospel of AIDS awareness, testing and treatment.
The city was awash in AIDS cases, and it was as if Cullins was working on an island. I was taken with her passion to be involved in what seemed like fighting a flood with a tea cup.
I called her after the mayor’s announcement and asked why I hadn't seen her in the media coverage of the news conference. I knew that she would be ecstatic about the new numbers. She told me she was just getting her energy back after a hard-fought and unsuccessful battle for a state representative seat.
Secondly, she didn’t know about it.
Even so, she was happy that the AIDS cases were declining. It was, as she put it, a signal that the long years of work in the AIDS fight were producing progress.
“It means that Baton Rouge has been putting in the hard and much-needed work to test, educate, diagnose and treat HIV/AIDS in Baton Rouge,” Cullins said. “As aggressive as we have been in doing that, we should continue just as hard.”
Cullins said her work has been enjoyable, tough and sometimes tragic. “But I love it … I know my work. I’m out in the trenches. That’s my passion.”
A feature story on her in a local publication, asks the questions: “Which talent or superpower would you most like to have and why?" Her answer. “I would most like to have a superpower that could cure HIV/AIDS.”
Years ago, Cullins was this tiny, engaging professor who would excitedly talk to whomever would listen her about her community work. She would try to win over others to see what she and friends were doing.
She and the other anonymous fighters operated a recreational vehicle with testing equipment on Friday nights outside local nightclubs in the mid-city area. They would go into the club and encourage patrons to be tested.
Her dedication did not come without some emotional scars. Over the years, Cullins said she has seen a number of patients who could not be saved. “Each death is tragic … Some of them are longtime patients, and you develop a relationship … and then you’ve lost a friend.”
Over time, she learned to accept it. But there was one case that involved a young African American male. “He was my friend, and he trusted me for treatment,” she recalled. But there were issues that developed in his home life, and eventually, he slowed down his treatment. AIDS began to do what it does.
“He got depressed and stopped taking his medicine” and later died. “It was sad and tragic,” she said. “That one got me.”
I asked if she was ever afraid for her safety inside or outside the clubs. “You know, I never thought about that until you asked just now,” said the woman nicknamed Lil Leah because of her size.
“I learned early on you have to meet people where they are,” she said, and the nightclubs were where she could do some good.
The battle continues. She teaches an online class in the summer educating people about the causes of HIV/AIDS, prevention and treatment. “I love my class,” she said.
Cullins said the latest findings are encouraging, and but she plans to continue her efforts to reduce the numbers even more. She still pushes all of her patients at a local health care facility to be tested.
“I think this is something I was meant to do,” she said. “I will continue to do this until there is a cure, until there is zero transmission.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.