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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1998, Vol.18, No.1
A Small-Town Doc in the South Bronx

By Peter Wortsman

In the South Bronx, where the sneakers of teen-age casualties of the streets dangle from traffic lights as a grim reminder of their passing, internist Barbara Zeller'71 delivers the personal care of a small town doc. Such care is a rare commodity to many of her patients. Dr. Zeller is medical director of H.E.L.P./Project Samaritan Inc., a 66-bed integrated residential health care facility for individuals suffering from the double scourge of drugs and AIDS.

A first-time visitor, admittedly wary of what to expect, is struck by the warmth of the place. The walls of the vestibule are lined with photographs of recent "graduates," people who have successfully completed the program and returned to the world outside to pursue their lives. Indeed, the center feels more like a small private school than a clinic. One young man who walks through the door is immediately embraced by current residents: "Long time no see, José! Stayin' clean? You're lookin' good! A former patient, he is clearly a valued member of the community, a role model who has gone the distance. "Hey, Dr. Z! everyone calls out to the short, frizzy-haired medical director striding down the hall, like students greeting a favorite teacher, breathing new life into the title "doctor" (which does, after all, derive from the Latin "docere," to teach).

For Dr. Zeller, teaching is a two-way street. Teaching health awareness and the necessity of a strict adherence to treatment as an essential part of her practice, she in turn continues to learn basic lessons about the strength of the human spirit: "I keep getting reinspired by the people I treat. The virus has given many of them a profound understanding of life that only comes to people with life-threatening illnesses."

Like other internists in general practice, her regimen includes individual patient consultations, routine physical exams combined with patient education, office check-ups, and hospital visits. She sees her patients on a regular basis over the extended period of their stay, tends to the complete range of their medical needs, and gets to know them and their families, sharing a rare degree of intimacy and trust. "I know whether what I do medically has any impact," she says, "because I get to see them the next day and the day after that.

Thankful for her rigorous medical grounding at P&S, "a sense of giving nothing but the best," she went on to train at Roosevelt Hospital in primary care medicine and earned a postgraduate degree in acupuncture from the Quebec Association of Acupuncture. A veteran of the anti-war and social protest movement of the early 70s, she earned her medical stripes as a volunteer physician during the Native American siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 (which she considers her most memorable postmedical school experience) and subsequently as a physician to various underserved communities around the country.

The state-of-the-art facility of H.E.L.P./Project Samaritan, where she has worked since its inception in 1991, was built with funding from Housing Enterprises for the Less Privileged, formerly headed by Andrew Cuomo. The concept of a single facility to treat the often-linked medical ramifications of AIDS and drug abuse was conceived by Project Return and Project Samaritan, two Bronx-based therapeutic communities. It's a place where people can complete a drug recovery program without having to go elsewhere for medical care.

Unfazed by the double social stigma of her patient population and its yet-incurable illness, Dr. Zeller takes a profound professional and personal satisfaction" in her practice. Working in conjunction with a dedicated team of health care professionals, including nurse practitioners and physician assistants, she and her colleagues have been heartened by the dramatic drop in the rate of death and morbidity and the marked improvement in the quality of patients' lives, thanks to the new combination therapy of protease inhibitors and other anti-retroviral drugs.

That's not to say the battle's won. "Our patients have been through the war of the streets in ways that I can hardly describe, their medical and psychosocial problems are vast and sometimes overwhelming, she acknowledges. What does she do when she's down? Pick up the phone and call her husband and classmate, Alan Berkman'71, medical director of Woodycrest Center, an AIDS nursing home about a mile down the block--or better yet, meet him for lunch.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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