McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Pioneer in AIDS treatment named YWCA woman of distinction

Published: June 14, 2016
Cheryl Wagner
Dr. Cheryl Wagner
(MD '82)

Dr. Cheryl Wagner (MD '82) was a fly-in doctor to First Nations communities when she got the call to take over the practice of a Toronto physician recently diagnosed with AIDS.

At that time 30 years ago, people with HIV/AIDS were often ostracized and many health professionals were hesitant to treat those infected. Few support programs existed and even fewer were available to women, but Wagner became one of the first — and few — physicians in Toronto to treat women with AIDS.

In the epidemic's early days, it became clear that clinical, social and legal problems facing women differed from those facing men living and dying with HIV. Cheryl began to research the variations and advocate for the services that women with HIV/AIDS and their children needed.

"The virus had only recently been identified.  Much was unknown. Fear was palpable. Discrimination was rampant," Wagner wrote in a blog entry:

[30-Year Look-Back at AIDS: from funerals to baby showers]

"Today, we have 29 drugs to treat HIV. Patients can expect a near-normal life expectancy. A young woman in my practice who was infected in utero is healthy, working full time and the mother of two healthy babies."

A pioneer then and now, Wagner continues to care for women and marginalized population in society, including refugee claimants, many abused in their home countries due to their HIV status. Her commitment to health and medical care has been lauded by many, and in May she was awarded the YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction award for health.

On her approach to healthcare, Wagner writes: "Being a doctor means working for better care for one woman, advocating for better laws for all women and system change to support people in marginalized communities."

"Treating the HIV is now the easy part of my job. The tough part is giving women the social supports that they need, in the form of employment, safe housing, support to flee domestic violence."

Cheryl has a number of supporters who have seen and felt her work's impact. Her patients continue to receive more than diagnosis and treatment, reads her YWCA biography. Her support follows patients into their communities and beyond.

In fact, she even intervened in a case involving a man had knowingly spread HIV to more than a dozen women. Her intervention led to a trial and saved the lives of potential victims.

"Cheryl's panoramic approach to health and medical care seems an inevitable extension of her personal and world views, shaped by circumstances, secured by conscious and conscientious decisions," says the YWCA biography.

Video: 2016 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction — Dr Cheryl Wagner

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