Dr Ruth Ramos Gonzalez-Ram is a Cuban born, Guyanese-trained physician who has made significant contributions in HIV medicine, patient care and services provided in Guyana. On the occasion of her retirement, I sat with her to find out a little more about her journey and her experiences over the years.
Dr Ramos graduated from the University of Guyana School of Medicine in 2000 and started to work at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). In her days at the Internal Medicine department, Dr Ramos recalls that she was always attracted to what was referred to as the “back cubicle”- where all the AIDS patients were placed. At that time, knowledge of HIV and AIDS was minimal, there were no antiretroviral drugs available, and there was little one could do to help these patients.
Fast forward a few years, and in 2002, she was asked to be a substitute doctor at the Genito-Urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at a time when they anticipated they were going to be short of staff. She worked at the GUM clinic initially for two months, but her interest was solidified in working with infectious diseases and HIV medicine during this time. Upon her return to GPHC, she requested to be permanently transferred over to the GUM Clinic.
Dr Ramos recalls that there were many challenges in the early days: delayed HIV results, unavailability and limitations with regards to treatment options and lack of knowledge on HIV management. She said there were many times when improvisation was necessary, especially when treating children, but that they always worked to make the most of what they had in every situation to do the best for patients.
Dr Ramos says there have been many improvements and she has been a first-hand witness to these as they have happened over the years. Presently, HIV testing is available across the country, care and treatment have been de-centralized, and people can access both antiretrovirals and treatment for opportunistic infections at many locations. She says human resources have significantly increased. More doctors, counsellors, outreach workers, and nurses have been properly trained and equipped to manage HIV. Literature has become widely available, and the country has developed its guidelines and protocols for HIV management. Dr Ramos is proud to have witnessed this transformative period and to have played a role in making it happen.
When asked to share some of the key things she has learnt over the years, Dr Ramos says that working with HIV patients, at the time when she did, introduced her to a virgin field in medicine in Guyana. She enjoyed growing and learning with the development in the field; discovering new diagnostic methods, new therapies, understanding management of opportunistic infections. However, above all, she says that the most important thing she learnt was to “be less of a doctor and more of a human”. She said some of the most important things she learned were to be a better listener, more patient, less judgmental, more compassionate, and overall, her experiences have made her a better person.
Dr Ramos’s most significant achievement over the years has been having the privilege of motivating and supporting patients in some of the darkest moments of their lives, giving them hope and reassuring them. This has given her great joy, to see many of her patients lead productive lives and have undetectable viral loads. She said, “To see little children, now grown up, having healthy children of their own, that gives me great satisfaction, and I call it success!”.
Dr Ramos hopes that HIV can be integrated into healthcare as just another chronic disease in the future. She hopes that stigma and discrimination will be eliminated from both the medical community and society at large. She hopes that there will be better treatment options developed and that maybe one day, we will even have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and relegate HIV to the history books.
Dr Ramos says to young doctors thinking about entering the field of HIV medicine, “If you want to be challenged every day, to keep exercising your brain and never be bored, go for it!”. She says that because HIV and infectious diseases are continuously evolving, it is imperative to keep updated.
Dr Ramos stresses the importance of staying humble as no one person will live long enough to understand all the mysteries of the human body and the diseases that can affect us. She says that she has had a most rewarding career and “I could never regret the day I decided to become an HIV physician!”