“People don’t think HIV is a problem anymore,” said Sampath Wijesinghe. “In the 1980s many people were dying from it and everyone was talking about it, but now that we have great treatments and it’s no longer a death sentence young people don’t even hear about it anymore.”
Now Sampath Wijesinghe MS, MPAS, PA-C, CPAAPA, AAHIVS is a Family Medicine PA at Adventist Health Central (AHC) Valley Network/PAETC in the Hanford, Calif., working with patients infected by HIV. A 2010 graduate of Union College’s Physician Assistant Studies (PA) Program, in 2014 Wijesinghe completed a fellowship in HIV studies with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Fresno. He treats some 10 percent of his patients for the disease as his clinic’s HIV Specialist, and is currently working toward a Doctor of Health Science in Global Health degree. An advocate for greater awareness of HIV and support for those infected by it, Wijesinghe works long hours to guide his patients and peers in building an AIDS-free world.
Through education and focused care, Wijesinghe is doing his part to eradicate AIDS, but there is still a lot of work to do. “Stigma is still clearly visible in the HIV world,” he said. “The biggest misunderstanding in society is that only a specific part of the population contracts HIV, but that’s not true. Anyone can be at risk for contracting HIV, including newborns. I made a commitment to work in the HIV field after I encountered a little girl who had been born with the disease. She was the same age as my daughter and really made me look at it from a different angle.”
A hurting friend
Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Wijesinghe was moved to enter the medical field early in life when his best friend was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident. They lived in a small town with limited facilities, and by the time the boy arrived in hospital he had already suffered irreparable brain damage and could no longer even recognize family or friends. He was only in the third grade at the time, and the incident left a deep impression on Wijesinghe and convicted him to dedicate his life to helping people like his friend.
“It touched my heart in a special way,” he explained. “I thought that if I did medicine I would be able to help people like him get better.”
As he grew older, Wijesinghe determined to pursue his dream in the United States and traveled to Connecticut for college as a biology major. However, he soon realized that his ambition to study medicine was impossible with the high cost of medical school for international students and instead moved to Nebraska to complete a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management. Wijesinghe then earned a Master in Management Information Systems degree with an MBA minor while he worked as a manager for a healthcare company, eventually being granted a green card to stay indefinitely in the U.S.
Once granted status as a permanent resident, Wijesinghe again reevaluated his life decisions and long-term goal to enter the medical field. Now a mature student with a young family, Wijesinghe decided to slightly change course and applied to PA programs in the area.
The Union experience
While Wijesinghe was initially attracted to Union for its proximity to their home, he soon fell in love with its friendly atmosphere and commitment to service. “I was not a traditional applicant, and the faculty and staff really took time to listen to my personal story,” he explained. “I think they saw something in me, and I felt it right away. I connected with the program, and I liked my first impression of the Union family.”
Wijesinghe began his studies at Union in August 2007 and soon learned to cherish his course’s small class sizes and emphasis on service. “Essentially, Union’s program concentrated on compassionate care, which I think is one of the most important characteristics of a clinician,” he said. “I am honored to be a graduate of Union College because the program prepared me so well to be a compassionate and competent PA.”
In the last year of his studies, Wijesinghe did a six-week clinical rotation in family medicine at AHCV Network in California and before he left was offered a permanent position. Wijesinghe gladly accepted, and following graduation moved with his family to California to start their new life.
It was while working at AHCV that Wijesinghe was invited to join the UCSF Fresno Family and Community Medicine Department as an HIV testing coordinator. In this role Wijesinghe saw new opportunities to help people and eagerly accepted an offer by the university to pursue an HIV fellowship. “By the time they invited me I had already developed a passion to help HIV patients,” he said. “I saw this as an area where I could make a palpable difference.”
In his research and as an HIV testing coordinator, Wijesinghe saw a great need to educate the community as well as fellow providers about the disease. “HIV is very steady in the U,S, at about 1.1 million cases and 50,000 new infections each year,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges now is with youth aged between 15 and 39—about 60 percent of those infected don’t know they have the disease. That’s a very big number, especially when they act as though they don’t have it and engage in risky sexual behavior so that it is transmitted to others.”
Within the U.S. only 30 percent of HIV patients currently have viral suppression, meaning that the disease is controlled with medication so it is virtually non transmittable to others. Among youth that number drops to six percent. “That is a very poor situation, and we have a lot of work to do” said Wijesinghe. “The young generation is the future, so we need to help them.”
Wijesinghe identifies increased HIV screening as essential to help tackle the spread of the disease, but also more asserts proactive approaches to encourage patients to follow challenging medication regimens and attend their appointments. In his current small HIV practice, Wijesinghe uses highly personalized methods as a way to keep his patients accountable. “If a patient doesn’t come to an important appointment I call them personally,” he explained. “Normally clinicians are so busy they can’t do that, but I like to keep a small panel of patients so I can call them to see how things are going.”
Through his somewhat unconventional practice, Wijesinghe finds patients more responsive and encouraged to attend their regular appointments. “Most of them are really impressed and say ‘you are the only provider who calls me like that,’” he said. “I see that there’s a trust, and then I tell them ‘you and I are a team, and we can work together to get this under control so you can lead a normal life.’”
But Wijesinghe’s work to educate others extends well beyond his clinic. In addition to lecturing at PA conferences across the country, Wijesinghe regularly speaks as a guest lecturer at PA programs and for family medicine residents. “I hear constantly after my talks that they are such eye openers,” he said. “When you are in medical or PA school you have the best intentions and want to care, but then after practicing for a while you get really busy and eventually it becomes a job. I like to reflect on why I chose medicine, and I teach that to students.”
Thanks to medical advances, patients with HIV can look forward to a long and healthy life. Wijesinghe is trying to change current perceptions of the disease, especially for those affected by it, and he is doing it through his ever important message of compassion. “I think people can recognize when you care,” he said. “They know when you treat them like a number. I try to show them my genuine compassion, what is coming from my heart, and they realize that and feel that. When they realize that you’re treating them like a person with personalized care, that alone makes them very healthy.”
By Joellyn Sheehy