Dr. Jemsek’s HIV/AIDS Work (1983–2009)

Before delving completely into his work with Lyme disease, Dr. Jemsek devoted over 20 years to the care of disenfranchised patients suffering from what was then called “gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID). Cases of the disease had not yet been reported in North Carolina, but with reports mounting nationwide, Dr. Jemsek suspected that the epidemic would soon become a local concern. In 1983, Dr. Jemsek diagnosed the first case of this mysterious illness in North Carolina, and throughout ’80s and ’90s, he offered HIV/AIDS care at the acclaimed Nalle Clinic, coauthoring several research papers on clinical studies that advanced the treatment for what was then a deadly disease.

At a time when no one understood what was causing or transmitting this mortal immunodeficiency syndrome, even medical professionals avoided touching the infected. People with HIV/AIDS were stigmatized and isolated when they most needed support and solace. Dr. Jemsek soon saw firsthand the most brutal aspect of the disease: discrimination and rejection. People were fired from their jobs, denied housing; children were banned from school; families abandoned their dying sons. Patients were shamed and shunned. Dr. Jemsek found patients left unattended in their hospital rooms. Seeing this, and trusting his medical instincts, he approached his patients with the compassion, dignity, and respect he knew they deserved. He became passionate about supporting this marginalized group, and as the HIV/AIDS epidemic progressed, he decided to focus solely on providing care for these patients. For his compassionate dedication to his HIV/AIDS patients, Dr. Jemsek was dubbed by colleagues “Big Gay Doctor.”

In 1987, the FDA, under pressure from activists, fast-tracked the approval of zidovudine (AZT), the first drug to treat the illness.1 Dr. Jemsek found AZT to be highly toxic and of poor efficacy.

Dr. Jemsek refers to the early 1990s as “the killing fields” because so many of his patients died. The grief was a tremendous struggle to bear, but Jemsek’s dedication to his patients helped him find the resilience to continue running his HIV/AIDS practice, focused on extending his patients’ lives in hopes that a cure was near. Dr. Jemsek also participated in numerous clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new HIV drugs.2

In 1995, by the time the first effective treatment, a protease inhibitor, became available, an estimated 19.5 million people had been infected worldwide. The new medication reduced patients’ viral levels and increased their CD4 cell counts,3 aiding their immune systems’ fight against opportunistic infections. This new drug was the medical breakthrough Dr. Jemsek had long hoped for. Treating the disease became remarkably simpler, and Jemsek transitioned his practice from trying to help patients avoid death to improving their quality of life.

For his fearless, dedicated work in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in 1998, North Carolina governor James B. Hunt presented Dr. Jemsek with a Certificate of Appreciation, the state’s highest civilian award, bestowed solely on a merit basis.

Dr. Jemsek featured in August 1996 for his work with HIV/AIDS patients. The newspaper caption reads: “Dealing with AIDS/HIV patients can be a grim business, but continuing research breakthroughs give Dr. Joe Jemsek (above) and his patients a reason to hope. Photo by Doug Lopes.”
Dr. Jemsek featured in August 1996 for his work with HIV/AIDS patients. The newspaper caption reads: “Dealing with AIDS/HIV patients can be a grim business, but continuing research breakthroughs give Dr. Joe Jemsek (above) and his patients a reason to hope. Photo by Doug Lopes.” Photo and caption courtesy of the Leader.

“I thought I was going to die. Just from exhaustion and stress.”

— Joseph Jemsek, MD

After the Nalle Clinic’s closure in 2000, Dr. Jemsek founded the Jemsek Clinic in Huntersville, North Carolina, to continue providing primary care to his HIV/AIDS patients. The Jemsek Clinic soon became the largest practice providing HIV/AIDS care on the East Coast between New York and Miami.

For over 20 years, Dr. Jemsek provided compassionate care to thousands of people with HIV/AIDS; ran major clinical trials; created a nonprofit, the Jemsek Charm Project, devoted to the care of indigent HIV/AIDS patients; and stood by his patients when they needed an advocate. But in 2006, Dr. Jemsek’s practice came under attack for his treatment of Lyme disease patients. Eventually, the legal and financial burden forced the Jemsek Clinic in North Carolina to close and Dr. Jemsek to conclude his work with HIV/AIDS, scattering thousands of patients around the Charlotte area.

In 2009, Dr. Jemsek resumed his practice in Washington, D.C., now focused on caring for another marginalized population of chronically ill, immunocompromised patients, victims of an all-new and controversial epidemic: Lyme disease, or Lyme borreliosis complex.

A delegation of Ukrainian health and social workers visit the Jemsek Clinic to learn about HIV/AIDS care, 2006.
A delegation of Ukrainian health and social workers visit the Jemsek Clinic to learn about HIV/AIDS care, 2006. Photo and caption courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.