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MARCH 2005

Dr. Alexandra Levine: Caring, Humanistic Physician

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Without intending it, Dr. Alexandra Levine, Chair of the Division of Hematology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), must surely find herself her at the center of two extremely important issues: the role of women in science, and research into AIDS. As just about everyone knows, Dr. Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, set off a firestorm last month when he suggested that women may not be as naturally gifted or as willingly disposed as men to pursue careers in the sciences. Two weeks later the papers were full of news about a new and especially virulent HIV virus discovered in a patient in New York City. Both subjects go to the heart of interests long held by Dr. Levine, a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at USC and a specialist in lymphoma, especially as it is found among HIV patients, particularly women, who now represent 30% of the infected population of the country (worldwide, it’s 50 percent).

Dr. Levine, a soft spoken woman, fluent and deliberate in her choice of words and gentle in tone, is nothing but passionate in her unstinting advocacy on behalf of increasing the number of  women in medicine and on preventing the spread of AIDS. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, she notes that when she went to medical school at USC, only 10 percent of her class were women; today, the percent is 52 percent. In 1967 women tended to specialize in expected areas–pediatrics, psychiatry; now, they concentrate on surgery as well, and why not. Long seen as health care providers, women just started moving up. “If they could be nurses, why not doctors?”

So, Lawrence Summers is half right and half wrong, Dr. Levine suggests. Women do have aptitude equal to men’s, but they often find themselves living double lives, domestic and professional. She herself started medical school just one day after she got married–to a fully supportive (physician) husband, she adds. It could never have been otherwise.

Graciousness, it’s been said, is often the mark of the truly accomplished, and Dr. Alexandra Levine manifests this maxim. With innumerable honors and awards for her work, including being appointed to President Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Advisory Council and serving as Chair of the Research Committee for the Presidential Council, not to mention being HIV/AIDS Consultant to the Health Department of Chile, Russia, India, and China, Dr. Levine, an extremely popular mentor to women medical students, keeps taking on mentees and volunteering to talk to school children about careers in medicine. Where did this urge to be a doctor come from? She laughs quietly, she really doesn’t know. No one in her family was involved in medicine, but at an early age “a little voice” pushed her, and when she was 16 and a candy striper at LA County Hospital, she knew this was it, the “turning point.”  A member of the pre-med club at Hollywood High School, she began visiting patients and one deeply affected her: an elderly African American who was so grateful for her time and good ear that the memory stayed with her forever. “I cried for hours,” she says, and she vowed then that she would practice medicine humanely, putting the “human aspect” at the center.

Teaching and talking, she realized, were not then, or now, the way to get ahead, but for this much published and highly regarded scientific investigator, caring for the body has always meant caring for the whole patient. She is proud that USC has encouraged that view. In fact, she says, USC has been a pioneer in instituting human interaction courses in the medical school curriculum and doing so in the first, critical year.  Introduction to Clinical Medicine and its second-year follow up on the human aspects of physical diagnosis, especially on how doctors should handle patient fears, are now 30 years old. Effective education is critical, especially “secondary prevention concepts” addressed to those testing positive for HIV urging the infected to discontinue continued sexual activity, not just because it is morally reprehensible but because, practically, it invites further infection from another viral strain.

The good doctor is too modest in giving over the banner of humanitarian concern to USC. She herself has been a pioneer, pushing at a time others did not, persevering in the face of intense criticism, for clinics, inpatient wards, and general understanding for patients with HIV/AIDS, for needle-exchange programs, and for educating youngsters, starting no later than junior high school.  Through it all she has never diminished her medical ministering and scientific research, much of it on the development and testing of a therapeutic AIDS vaccine done with Dr. Jonas Salk, whom she refers to as her most influential mentor, a “father figure,” and a friend, someone who came along at a low moment in her own life (she lost both parents to cancer).  He’d sometimes call her at 3 or 4 in the morning with ideas, rousing her from sleep, but getting her to scribble post-its all around her room for their subsequent inquiries. As for today’s youngsters, she has this advice: believe in yourself deeply; allow yourself to take advantage of opportunities that may open on other roads; “go for it.”#



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