The Joy of Medicine

Get tissues — Duke global health physician John Bartlett's new podcast interview may make you teary

Published October 19, 2020 under Voices of DGHI

Written by Mary Brophy Marcus

John Bartlett

Back in the early 1980s, Duke physician John Bartlett started treating people who had human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). At the time, it was a virus that — like COVID-19 is now — scientists knew very little about, except that it could lead to severe illness and a devastating end of life. 

Many doctors and healthcare providers refused to touch or even get near patients with HIV, which attacks the body's immune system and can develop into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There still is no cure for HIV, but there is an effective treatment that can keep it under control. 

In those early days of HIV, there was also much fear around the idea of handling the bodies of those who’d died of AIDS. Because of that, Bartlett’s care to his patients extended beyond death — giving them and their loved ones dignity.

“At that time, Duke had a crematorium in the basement of Duke South and it was the cheapest place to get cremated in Durham. And so, as a consequence, I would go make home visits and pronounce people dead and pick up their bodies, put them in the back of my pickup truck and take them to Duke South so the patient could get cremated,” he says in a new podcast produced by Duke University School of Medicine

The interview is part of a series called “Voices of Medicine,” a collection of interviews, conversations and stories highlighting the lives and work of people who’ve worked in the Department of Medicine.

Bartlett’s recording is a very emotional story to hear as he recalls the challenges for patients and for doctors like himself at the beginning of the HIV epidemic. For example, when his division chief learned about his trips to the crematorium, he called Bartlett into his office and said, “You are never going to get promoted. You are never going to be successful if you keep doing these things.”

But Bartlett's story will reassure anyone who has ever struggled with doing what they believe is right despite being told by someone in a position of authority or influence that what they're doing is wrong. 

And Bartlett explains in the podcast that over time, he found like-minded colleagues. “Eventually, I had a roster of consultants I could call who would take care of our patients," the Duke professor of medicine, global health and nursing said.

Bartlett went on to become the Associate Director for Research of the Duke Global Health Institute, Co-Director of the Duke University Center for AIDS Research, a Senior Fellow within the Duke University Health Inequalities Program and he co-chairs the Duke University Africa Initiative.

In the podcast, titled "The Joy of Medicine," Bartlett explains that treating people with HIV shaped him as a person and a physician. 

“If you had six months to live, you could discern what’s important. And our patients were able to help teach us what was important.”