This Doctor Can: Fighting HIV

Inspired by her wish to help people living with HIV, Professor Chloe Orkin has dedicated her career to studying this area of medicine. In this piece she talks about her journey into medicine, and the treatment she experienced as a gay, senior woman in her field.

I am the first doctor in my family. Born in Johannesburg, I went to medical school there and, out of the whole curriculum, I was most fascinated by the brave new worlds of virology and immunology.

My fascination with the science of HIV, coupled with my deep wish to help my friends, drove my decision to pursue a career in HIV medicine.

Professor Chloe Orkin

I came to the UK a year later and joined a specialist registrar rotation at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – and started to grapple with my own sexuality, and how to fit in as a gay, international medical graduate who was almost ten years younger than my fellow specialist registrars. Two of these fellow trainees became lifelong friends. I also met my long-term partner, a senior HIV nurse, who worked at the hospital. I came out as gay at work.

Towards the end of my training, my professor sent me to Botswana with my partner to set up an HIV treatment programme and train staff to use antiretroviral treatment. It gave me the chance to bring my skills back to Africa and to share this very meaningful experience with her. At that time, it was illegal to be gay and we were strongly cautioned that being ‘out’ would jeopardise the programme. It was hard for us to socialise with colleagues, because to do so would involve fabricating a life we didn’t have.

It was illegal to be gay and we were strongly cautioned that being ‘out’ would jeopardise the programme. It was hard for us to socialise with colleagues, because to do so would involve fabricating a life we didn’t have.

Professor Chloe Orkin

I took up a consultant post at Barts Health NHS Trust 16 years ago and am now a professor of HIV medicine at Queen Mary University of London. The main focus of my research, still inspired by my dearly-departed HIV-positive friends, is the development of new HIV treatments. I was elected to the role of chair of the British HIV Association and worked with HIV policy organisations to challenge discriminatory HIV legislation. I learned that doctors can be powerful activists and work towards social justice. 

Having never really felt that my gender had affected my career progression thus far, suddenly — as a national leader in my field and an internationally recognised researcher — I started to experience gender-based discrimination. An ITV news interview I gave about my research into the first-ever injectable HIV treatment was trolled on social media. Not about what I said, but instead, homophobic, misogynist remarks about how I looked. I also became much more conscious of gender-based discrimination directed against other senior women.

This experience made me determined to work to change things. Medical women are so much more than how we look. Very soon after this I was elected as the vice president of the Medical Women’s Federation where I am working with other women to reduce sexism in medicine and support women’s careers.

Would you like to share your experience of entering medicine? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.