Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Alumni Awards

Stanley Read Brought Compassion to Families Living with HIV/AIDS

This infectious diseases specialist is one of four 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients

By Therese Kehler

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
November 23, 2020 •

Now more than ever, it’s clear. We all have a part to play to keep each other safe, to lift each other up. This year’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients show us how it’s done. These four extraordinary grads — Karen Barnes, Ron M. Clowes, Howard Leeson and Stanley Read — have brought together ideas and people to make the world a more just, humane and intelligible place. 

As a doctor on the front lines of a terrifying new virus, Stanley Read, ’65 MD, relied on two things: his training as an infectious diseases specialist and his compassionate instincts.

It was the mid-1980s and the virus, HIV, was leading to countless deaths from AIDS. In scenes familiar to today, scientists raced to create diagnostic tests and treatments while doctors counselled patients on caring for themselves.

As both a research scientist and bedside doctor, Read understands that compassion in medicine is vital. “[Patients] need to trust you. They need to listen to you, to be willing to do what you ask them to do. And that’s all part of trust and understanding and the feeling of caring.”

His first meeting with a child with HIV — in 1987 at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto — inspired him to focus his research on children’s health.

Within a year, he had set up the hospital’s pediatric HIV clinic and its family‑centred care program. In the beginning, before effective treatments were developed, he and his team spent a lot of time “helping children die. And helping families with their dying children,” he says. But he also helped children live, implementing new treatment protocols for pregnant HIV-positive women so they could deliver virus-free babies.

Giving back has been a big part of Read’s life, whether volunteering at sexually transmitted infection clinics in New York and Toronto or helping establish Canada’s first HIV/AIDS hospice. His work with HIV/AIDS took him all over the world — Russia, Ukraine and the Caribbean. Wherever he went, he met his patients with open arms. Literally. He was known for his hugs, which became a powerful message against the stigma shown to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Read, now a senior scientist emeritus at SickKids, knows all too well that the fear and shame surrounding any new virus can be virulent. But a strong sense of community and compassion goes a long way in bringing people together. That’s what he learned growing up in tiny Bashaw, Alta. “People talk about ‘It takes a community to raise a child’ and that’s kind of the way I grew up,” he says. “The caring and the nurturing of family and the village.”


6 things you should know about Stanley Read

“Stan was loved and adored by families during these hard times. … He was always there with a warm hug, which was vital for people who often felt that no one would want to touch them.” – Cheryl Arneson, HIV research nurse co-ordinator, Hospital for Sick Children

First-generation university grad

“I came from a hard-working family that had no education beyond grade school or high school.”

Helping hand

In the early 1980s, Read went to Thailand to work at a refugee camp for Cambodians who had fled civil war in their country. On his return to Canada, he sponsored his Cambodian translator and his wife and child. They lived with Read for 10 years.

Key AIDS study

There wasn’t an AIDS test in 1984 when Read and a colleague started a research project to study how the disease progressed, by tracking the sexual contacts of symptomatic gay men in Toronto. “We had freezers full of stuff that we could go back and look at and study as tests were evolving.” It was one of the first natural history studies of HIV/AIDS, published in 1990.

Song-and-dance man?

Read has worked with people all over the world, from Russia to the Bahamas. One collaboration was with a Jamaican youth troupe, the Ashe Company, that created musical performances with a safe-sex message. “I was there to make sure it was scientifically sound, based on evidence and facts,” he says.

Beyond Bashaw

In the early 1970s, Read worked at one of the first methadone clinics in New York City. He remembers thinking, “what’s a relatively naive person like me, from Bashaw, doing going to work with heroin users in Hell’s Kitchen of New York?”

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