Photo by Ash Daniel
In the early 1980s, when AIDS cases were starting to be detected in the United States, Robert Higginson was providing care as a physician assistant to Virginia inmates at the federal prison in Petersburg. In 1985, as more people became aware of the disease and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes it, Higginson and his colleagues started testing inmates and found that some of them were infected. "That's how I got interested in that sort of medicine," he says.
For the past 23 years, Higginson has been a physician assistant at the VCU Health System's Infectious Diseases Clinic, which helps more than 3,000 HIV-infected people area each year. "The patients that I see, their entire life has been HIV," he says.
"Bob is an amazing provider to hundreds of HIV-infected patients in the Richmond and Central Virginia area," says Dr. Beth Marshall, a physician who works in the clinic. "He has been practicing HIV longer than many of the physicians caring for HIV patients, and, as this is his sole focus in medicine, possesses a unique and vast expertise in the care of this special group of patients. … His patients love him, and it has always been wonderful to have him as a resource."
Higginson has been working at VCU's Infectious Diseases Clinic since it opened in February 1990. Some of his patients have been seeing him for 15, even 20 years. He has been seeing one patient since the clinic opened.
"You know someone for that long period of time and you kind of see them go through so many changes through their lives," he says. "And in some ways, you help them get through this and stay alive to see those things. They never expected to see their kids get out of high school, college and get married or have kids."
Higginson also continues to provide care for HIV-infected state inmates one or two half days a week via a TV screen. He follows up on symptoms, reviews lab results and orders new medications.
"In 1990, for people who were becoming HIV-infected, it was pretty much a death sentence because we didn't have the appropriate medications," he says. "Now we look at HIV like a chronic illness, and for me it's not only educating patients, but helping them live a healthier lifestyle in general so they can live a normal life."