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Healing rural America: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague

A deep Christian faith guides the doctor, who closes all his emails with a quote from Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

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Healing Austin, Indiana: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague

by Laura Ungar, Louisville Courier-Journal

 

Johnathon Clark’s head caves in deeply where his grandfather shot him.

He went to the elderly man’s home four and a half years ago hoping to steal money for drugs. An argument got violent. Now, as he sits in Dr. Will Cooke's exam room, he’s maimed for life at 28, a large slice of the right side of his head gone.

But while this visible reminder of his years-long addiction is horrific, a more insidious legacy hides within his body — HIV.

And if he and his doctor can’t keep it under control, it can kill him as surely as a bullet. ...

Cooke knows this. He’s cared for scores of HIV patients in his small-town family practice over the past two years...

This tiny city off Interstate 65 is the epicenter of a medical disaster. Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirms Austin contains the largest drug-fueled HIV outbreak to hit rural America in recent history, and "the largest concentrated outbreak ever documented in the United States." He says its 5 percent infection rate — 215 cases in a population of 4,200 — is comparable to some African nations. And like those countries, Austin has long struggled with scant medical resources. Cooke is its lone physician, caring for most of the HIV patients along with his staff and an ever-changing cadre of medical students. ...

Cooke — a 45-year-old wearing a Star Wars cap that matches his scrubs — peppers the usual medical instructions with a dose of humanity, advising students: “Listen to him and talk to him and show him compassion.”

A deep Christian faith guides the doctor, who closes all his emails with a quote from Galatians:

"And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."

“It’s only when we’re purpose-driven that we are really living,” says Cooke, Austin’s lone doctor. “Otherwise, we can be of no earthly good.”

What happened here provides lessons for the entire country about preventing and halting a deadly disease. ...

An outside frenzy of government attention has died down. Now, it’s largely up to the community to minister to the 215 people with HIV who may live here for decades. And gradually, that’s happening. New connections among health workers, church volunteers and community leaders are spawning locally rooted solutions residents hope will endure. Many of Austin's young people are determined to avoid drugs and build different futures.

Slowly, a path toward healing is being paved, a path illuminated by the flickering light of compassion. ...

A short drive away, volunteers scoop potatoes, green beans and salad to feed a long line of hungry people at the Church of the New Covenant.

It’s part of a weekly program called Food 4R Souls,which provides free meals, clothing and canned food at the corner of a street notorious for drugs. Cooke’s practice and the AIDS foundation contribute money and volunteer time to this effort and the youth center next door.

Read the rest of the three-part series.

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