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Dr Peter, 20 years later

AIDS pioneer's legacy remembered on Nov 15 anniversary

"He put a face on the disease and showed strength and determination in everything he did," says Ken Buchanan of Dr Peter Jepson-Young (above), whose CBC Diaries changed people's perception of HIV/AIDS. Credit: Dr Peter AIDS Foundation

Twenty years ago, a young gay physician dying of AIDS captured the attention of Canadians with his candour as he shared the last years of his life and sought to reduce the fear and stigma surrounding AIDS.

Through the 111 weekly CBC-TV episodes of the Dr Peter Diaries, aired from 1990 to 1992, Dr Peter Jepson-Young became a household name, putting a human face to the pandemic when homophobia and discrimination surrounding HIV/AIDS were rampant.

“It was very brave,” Dr Peter’s mother, Shirley Young, tells Xtra.

Jepson-Young was working as a physician in Vancouver when he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1986. He died Nov 15, 1992. He was 35 years old.

This Nov 15, Shirley and her husband, Bob, will share a quiet night watching some of their son’s diaries to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

“We had one made up of all our favourite diaries, the ones that were less intense — the ones of Peter skiing and playing piano,” Shirley, now 79, says. “It’s nice to watch those and remember.”

Former Positive Living BC chair Ken Buchanan says his mother watched the Dr Peter Diaries “religiously.”

“That was way before I was infected,” he says. “It helped. She hasn’t forgotten Dr Peter.”

“He put a face on the disease and showed strength and determination in everything he did,” Buchanan says.

In the weeks before his death, Dr Peter established the Dr Peter AIDS Foundation to provide comfort and care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

In 1997, the foundation opened the Dr Peter Centre in Vancouver’s West End to provide that care. Now, the centre is widely recognized as an innovative healthcare leader, responding to current HIV/AIDS care issues.

Shirley says the centre’s work is part of her son’s continuing legacy.

“I think it’s breaking down misconceptions about AIDS and gay people and providing comfort,” she says, describing his legacy. “He captivated viewers. They saw what had happened and they cared. They didn’t judge.”

Shirley says the family was initially fearful of what might happen if the Diaries were broadcast. “We tried to discourage him,” she admits. “We were frightened. He lived alone. He didn’t have his vision. He might become the victim of a gaybashing. That never happened. The public loved him.”

As Dr Peter’s death approached, his family was with him Nov 14 and into the morning hours of Nov 15.

“We were with Peter when he passed away,” Shirley says. “It was beautiful. We went immediately to his grandmother to tell her not to be afraid. Once you feel that way, you can live life more fully. Peter was certainly ready. He taught us how to die with grace.”

“We were in so much pain,” Shirley continues. “We had no way of knowing what the future would hold.”

Today, the Dr Peter Foundation and its centre provide housing for 24 people, in their nursing care residence, and help more than 400 people with HIV/AIDS who face challenges such as poverty, mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

“It’s mindboggling,” Shirley says.

Buchanan credits Shirley, who still volunteers at the Dr Peter Centre, with helping to keep her son’s legacy alive, too. “That’s important,” he says.

Looking back to the turbulent early days of the AIDS crisis, Maxine Davis, the executive director of the Dr Peter Centre, says, “Vancouver was in the grip of people dying of HIV/AIDS and there was no end in sight.”

Had Dr Peter lived another four years, he would have had access to life-extending treatments, Davis notes.

“Peter was and is an iconic individual,” Davis says. “He inspired so many of us to honour him by seeing that his mission is put in place.”

Both Shirley and Davis say the stigmatization of people with AIDS remains.

Shirley says she meets people at the Dr Peter Centre who won’t have their images used in media out of fear that their family or landlords might see them. “They might get an eviction notice,” she says. “That’s awful.”

But the stigma is less pervasive than when Dr Peter went on the air, Davis believes.

“I think Peter helped put British Columbia on the vanguard of acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS and support of people who were gay.”

Buchanan agrees that attitudes have changed in the wake of Dr Peter. “Maybe not to the extent we would have liked, but people are more accepting now,” he says.

Davis says the overall level of HIV infection has also declined in the last 20 years.

Davis says Dr Peter’s legacy and his centre’s influence now extend far beyond the corner of Thurlow and Comox streets in Vancouver. She says healthcare organizations from across North America are interested in how the centre cares for people living with HIV/AIDS, including aging survivors.

In the years after Dr Peter’s death, CBC-TV and HBO collaborated to produce a documentary compilation, The Broadcast Tapes of Dr Peter. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.