The 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award goes to a transformational leader who made trying to find a cure for AIDS his life's work.

Healthcare Achievement Awards 2020: Lifetime Achievement

Dr. Michael Para, Equitas Health/OSU Wexner Medical Center

As an infectious disease physician, Dr. Michael Para was accustomed to seeing patients with curious symptoms in his work at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

But a man in his 40s who was admitted in 1981 had more than curious symptoms. He had a rare lung infection that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had begun to report was killing young men in Los Angeles.

That patient was Para’s introduction to what would become his life’s work—trying to find a cure for AIDS.

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For nearly four decades, Para—known as Columbus’ AIDS doctor—has fought the disease through research, patient care and education.  “He literally helped change the course of history in treating and understanding HIV and AIDS,” says Bill Hardy, president and CEO of Equitas Health, formerly AIDS Resource Center Ohio, since 1993. “This was the plague of our generation.”

Para, 71, calls the early days of treating AIDS “horrible.” Little was known about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. No one knew how it was transmitted or how to stop its fatal march through a patient’s body. But as a young OSU doctor researching unusual infections related to viruses, Para was uniquely trained to begin the battle against the scourge.

“I believed we were going to figure this out, and I had the hope that maybe I could keep patients alive long enough so we could have something that worked,” says Para. 

And so began years of trial and error, of incremental successes building upon each other. 

One giant step was when Para and others at Ohio State wrangled a $7 million federal grant for AIDS research in 1988, including testing with the anti-viral drug AZT, as part of a national consortium of 35 medical centers. That gave Para, as co-lead investigator, access to AIDS experts nationwide who were fighting the disease, allowing him and his colleagues to share treatments and protocols for what worked and what didn’t.

“It was really like being at the very cutting edge of what was happening,” Para says. “The only way to get those drugs was to get into a national test, so that was an important thing.”

By 1996, AIDS patients could take a cocktail of drugs that would extend their lives; today, those infected with HIV—the precursor to AIDS—can take a single pill a day, live a normal lifespan and not transmit the virus to anyone else. 

“I have one patient who said: ‘I just want to live long enough to see my kids graduate from high school.’ Now that patient is a granddaddy,” chuckles Para. 

Over the years Para has donned many medical hats: OSU director of clinical studies for the AIDS Clinical Trial Unit for 17 years; co-director of the East Central AIDS Education and Training Center for eight years; hospital chief of staff for three years; and associate dean for clinical research for 19 years, among others.

He says being involved in developing AIDS medications is his greatest achievement as a doctor.

But he is equally well known for his compassionate care of patients with the disease, beginning when cases first began showing up and some health care workers refused to even get near patients. 

By 1994, Para had treated more than 600 persons with AIDS and seen 400 of them die. 

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“There was such a stigma to this disease,” he says. “Not only did you have a disease you’re going to die of, you were outed (as being gay) in many cases by this infection. What people feared was that they were going to die and nobody was going to be there with them because they were gay.”

Para’s patients had his home phone number so they could call him, day or night. He learned the importance of helping them not just with their disease, but with all the ways it affected their lives. 

That’s one reason he became part-time medical director at Equitas in 2012, when the organization opened its first medical center.

“He was transformational for us,” says Hardy. Para helped Equitas develop a center in the Short North where patients could receive multiple services beyond medical care all at one site and pay on a sliding-fee scale. The organization now has 13,000 patients, including about 5,000 HIV patients, and 17 offices in 11 Ohio cities. 

Para retired from Equitas and OSU in January but hopes to keep his hand in medicine as a consultant, teacher and physician, perhaps in telemedicine.

He’s grateful for all the accolades he received on his retirement, but he wants to make sure that others—all the people he worked with over the years, including his patients—are recognized for their contributions. 

“All of them provide the care,” he says, “and I get the credit.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.