In South Florida, Dr. Esther Schumann Uses Compassion and Tough Love to Save HIV Patients

Dr. Esther Schumann (left) with nurse Nichell Robbins

Dr. Esther Schumann (left) with nurse Nichell Robbins

Dr. Esther Schumann, an energetic, handsome, plainspoken woman from Lippstadt, Germany, works with some of AIDS Healthcare Foundation‘s most problem-plagued patients in South Florida — and gets results.

“We have a huge amount of people who are illiterate,” Schumann told me with a somehow fitting German accent. “It’s a very complex situation with our clients.”

For Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World, I visited Schumann several times at her office in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  At 55 years old, she and her small staff worked with 650 people — men and women, gay and straight, poor and working-class. In addition to illiteracy, a sizable number of her clients had substance-abuse and/or mental-health issues, all of which made it difficult for a person to routinely take his or her HIV medication and stay healthy.

From the first time I met Schumann, it was obvious that she was one of AHF’s most effective doctors — her supervisors and colleagues had nothing but praise for her.

Schumann was consumed with saving her patients’ lives. She spent any time necessary with them during examinations; she called them personally if they didn’t show up for an appointment; she brooded over them if they were having personal or health troubles; she used straight-forward tough love if necessary.

Schumann was never a bully, however — and she couldn’t be. Underneath her sometimes blunt bedside manner was extraordinary compassion.

One time, for example, a mentally unstable patient left a threatening voice mail on her office phone and showed up two days later for an appointment with a knife. Schumann was reluctant to call the police.

“We don’t throw in the towel with our clients,” Schumann explained. “Because we may be the only people who care for them.”

A staff member decided enough was enough, and dialed 911.

But it was that kind of compassion that not only won the trust of her patients, but ultimately got hard-to-treat clients adhering to their HIV drug treatments.

“We save lives,” Schumann softly admitted to me one afternoon, as if she was afraid of appearing boastful. “We truly save lives.”

Read more about Dr. Esther Schumann and AHF in “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World.” Now available as an e-book and paperback.

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