By Maren Miller, student writer
“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.” His goal is to change that. Many people go through life without knowing what it means regarding the rest of their life when they find out they’re HIV positive, and that lack of knowledge tends to feed into the stigma that surrounds HIV and those who have it.
Wijesinghe, a 2010 Union College physician assistant graduate, has dedicated his career to preventing AIDS and helping those who have it lead normal lives. He will speak at Union College on Tuesday, October 10. His talk, “HIV/AIDS essentials,” will be given in Heartland Hall at the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church at 9:00 a.m.
“HIV is very steady in the U.S. at about 1.1 million cases and 50,000 new infections each year,” Wijesinghe 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.”
But he is trying to change that. “Stigma is still clearly visible in the HIV world,” Wijesinghe 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.”
Learning to care
Wijesinghe, DHSc, PA-C, CPAAPA, AAHIVS, MBA, is a family medicine PA at Adventist Health Central Valley Network in Hanford, Calif., and the clinic’s HIV specialist. He has earned several management degrees, completed a fellowship in HIV studies at the University of California San Francisco and earned a Doctor of Health Science Degree in Global Health.
Born in Sri Lanka, Wijesinghe was motivated to enter the medical field when a childhood friend was injured, and the lack of immediately available medical services left him with irreparable brain damage as a third grader.
“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.”
He wanted to come to the United States for medical school, but found the cost far too high for international students. After studying information systems and management on the East Coast, he came to Nebraska to earn a degree in health management. Once a permanent resident, he reconsidered his goals in the medical field and decided to pursue the PA field.
Because of medical advances, those who contract HIV are now able to live long and happy lives, but living with a certain perception can be troubling. Wijesinghe is working to help those affected with HIV as well as helping change the minds of others through compassion. “I think people can recognize when you care,” he said. For Wijesinghe, keeping that compassion is important.
“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.”
College View Seventh-day Adventist Church is located at the corner of 48th and Prescott on the campus of Union College, and the event is free and open to the public.