Macalester Today Summer 2011

key west doctor Mark Whiteside

It was Birds that first brought Mark Whiteside’ 72 to South Florida.

In 1979 the Kansas City native and internal medicine resident spotted a rare Key West Quail Dove in the Everglades, so he returned the following year for another birding expedition, tacking on a professional visit to a Miami hospital.

Whiteside had developed an interest in tropical medicine after attending a lecture about the parasitic illness called Chagas disease. When he asked the lecturer which path he should follow to pursue that interest, he was told he could join the military, get a master’s degree in public health, or complete an infectious diseases fellowship.

Choosing the third option, Whiteside used his birding trip to interview for an infectiou disease fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. At the time he was thinking solely about tropical diseases, and had no idea that he’d soon become an expert on a mysterious illness just starting to burn its way through Miami’s gay community.

By the early 1980s Whiteside—who by now had also earned a master’s in public health—and a medical partner were operating a treatment center for infectious disease in Miami and began to notice that many of their patients were sexually active gay men suffering from weight loss, skin cancer, and yeast infections in the mouth.

Those symptoms, of course, would soon become associated with AIDS. In fact, Whiteside and his partner found themselves doing AIDS-related treatment before the disease even had a formal name. “We became the experts at diagnosing the opportunistic infections we now know are associated with AIDS long before we knew what HIV was,” says Whiteside. “We watched incredibly sick patients die before we knew that it was from AIDS.”

Although they didn’t know the cause of the symptoms, the medical partners understood that their patients were at severe risk from a frequently fatal illness. With the stakes so high, Whiteside was moved to design one of the country’s first AIDS screening programs at his Miami clinic. “We saw tens of thousands of individuals,” he says. “We had an extensive history form, we asked about everything from sexual practices to travel. We gave physical exams looking for weight loss, large lymph nodes, and other opportunistic infections. We looked for low white cell blood counts, tested for syphilis and intestinal parasites. At the end we could tell the patient if he had AIDS, even though there was no test for it.”

Equally important, Whiteside began advising patients about the crucial importance of using condoms. “At that point, we knew that anal intercourse was a risk factor,” he says. “We were arguably the first group in the country to counsel our patients about safe sex.” One day, a gay man came into their practice and asked Whiteside to bring his work to Key West, where many of the man’s friends were getting sick. Whiteside set up a weekend clinic there, commuting for several years before moving permanently to the island in 1987. There he remains, raising a young family with his wife, Lilla, a physical therapist.

Macalester helped lead him to his career choice, says Whiteside, because the college’s science requirement introduced him—then an English and psychology student—to biology. “I wasn’t one of those kids who had always wanted to attend medical school,” he admits. “I went to Macalester primarily because my sister, Esther Thorson ’69, P’97, went there. I just followed my interests and Macalester allowed me to do that. Macalester gave me more than an education—it taught me how to think.”

Whiteside needed all of Mac’s influence and his own brainpower to forge his way through “one of the most significant and important epidemics of our age,” he says. “I saw AIDS go from a devastating disease to a chronic illness. It’s remarkable the advances we’ve made. The first 15 years of HIV were dreadful. People were dying left and right. But since the late ’90s the treatment has improved. Today in Key West, 80 percent of our treated HIV patients have undetectable levels of the virus and are living normal lives. You can have so much impact in this kind of medicine.”

Whiteside’s life in South Florida has also allowed him to continue his passion for birding. He served as president of the Florida Keys Audubon Society for six years and has been active in promoting shade-grown coffee, which protects the habitat of tropical and wintering birds. “Birding is a great outlet for me,” he says. “I tell my patients if I didn’t run three times a week and go bird watching every chance I got, I would have lost my mind a long time ago.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to Macalester Today.