Community tribute to David Cooper

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27 Jul 2018


Much has been acknowledged about David Cooper since his passing in March … his  clinical and scientific accomplishments … His ground-breaking research ... His distinguished academic leadership ...

But as the representative of people living with HIV in Australia, I would like to pay special tribute to David as a champion for the rights of positive people ...

In particular, the right to dignity and the right to be involved.

Very early on, David recognised that HIV was more than a fascinating medical phenomenon. He understood that it was a very human problem requiring the utmost compassion.

A colleague at NAPWHA who worked as a nurse at St Vincent's hospital in Sydney during the horror years of the mid-1980s recalls that “He was always ‘David’. No matter who you were. Whenever anybody spoke of ‘David’, everybody knew who you meant.”

I recently watched  a television drama that documented the fear and ignorance surrounding AIDS back in the day. In one particular scene, two nurses dressed in heavy-duty, bio-protective clothing care for a man dying of AIDS. When one nurse wipes a tear from his eye, the second nurse rebukes her by saying, "Don't ever wipe tears without gloves.

Well … David wiped tears without gloves.

He spoke often about the effects of ignorance and stigma on his patients, with some staff refusing to take food trays into their rooms. His approach, embraced by the Sisters of Charity, who ran St Vincent’s Hospital, was that every patient deserved dignity, care and compassion, and that none would be turned away.

David also understood how important the involvement of positive people was in our response to the epidemic.

Very soon after the first cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed in Australia, activists from the gay community began communicating with one another. Networks were formed to share what little information we had at the time.  David was always willing to engage with the community and share what he knew.

Collaborations were borne: networks of  private practitioners and public health clinics at the coal-face  joined with those providing programs. Integral to all of this was how quickly and decisively David worked to see these collaborations included community.

The National Centre study groups and networks he instigated were part of those early partnerships, and were bubbling cauldrons of energy and passion. But while driven by urgency, they were also sobered by his pursuit for evidence.

For all his humanity, David was a scientist after all.

These working groups were inhabited by many of the community leaders, treatment officers, educators and advocates of the time. We hailed from all segments of the community response, all arguing for our respective priorities.

David debated the issues when we were pushing for things to be better, faster, or when we were demanding more attention on an emerging issue.

He balanced that churn of expectations and desire for attention in extraordinary patient ways. Even when some of the extreme responses of the time were aimed at him, he remained generous and good humoured. 

David supported our organisations with funders and politicians. He spent time in dialogue with community leaders and activists, many his own patients.

He would listen, and he was determined to find collaboration and partnership, even when there was frustration and tension over intersections of science, policy and activism.

Those who worked alongside him, and who were often across a table from him in those roller-coaster times, recognised a true ally to be embraced.

His personal devotion to the people most affected by the virus was extraordinary.

Patients were his focus. They gave him much inspiration over the years — and much humility. For that, we loved him.

May I close with a quote from Michael Kirby, a close friend of David's and whose name graces the Centre David directed.

“The worst tragedy of the premature death of David Cooper would be if his legacy were now to die. If HIV and other blood-borne diseases were to be reclaimed, remedicalised and returned entirely to the medical experts. He was the supreme interdisciplinarian. He was the master of team work. He smashed the silos of our minds.”