SALISBURY – When Wesley Thompson looks back on his medical career so far, he can point to several distinct moments that have shaped his path.
The first and most influential came when he was a graduate student at Duke University Hospital in 1985. Charged with drawing blood from an AIDS patient, Thompson walked into a room wrapped outside in paperwork. Upon entering, Thompson said he saw a nurse throw her badge aside and state that she “refused to touch these people”.
HIV had only been identified by researchers a few years ago and was still a highly stigmatized virus at the time. Misinformation about how the virus was transmitted was rampant. Even though this was one of Thompson’s first encounters with an AIDS patient, he confidently walked over to the patient’s bedside and took a blood sample from him.
âAfter I drew some blood, I put on the bandage and said, ‘I have to go to class now. I am still at school. I’ll come see you after I finish after dinner, âsaid Thompson. “I lowered my respirator and kissed him on the forehead.”
By the time Thompson returned to the hospital room a few hours later, the paperwork was gone. So was the patient.
âThe nurse in charge was always there,â said Thompson. She rushed over and grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘Wesley, I just want you to know he told me what you did and said. And I want to thank you. You were the last person to touch him and treat him like a human before he died.
Thompson’s plan had been to travel to foreign lands as a missionary to spread the word of God. But after caring for AIDS patients during the early stages of the epidemic, he forged a new path.
âI came to realize that HIV was my field of mission and I started to get really aggressive in learning more about HIV,â said Thompson.
Thompson, originally from Rowan County, has since become a leader in HIV / AIDS treatment and research in the Charlotte area. The specialist was recognized for his work as the recipient of the 2021 America’s Top PA Award in the Treatment of HIV / AIDS.
âI was never there to be famous,â said Thompson. âI’m in this because I want to make a difference in the lives of patients and it’s very gratifying to receive something like that. “
Born in what is now Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, Thompson grew up in southern Rowan County. His father worked for Southern Railway and his family rebounded between Granite Quarry and Rockwell, but Thompson spent most of his formative years at China Grove.
Interested in studying medicine and theology, Thompson applied and was accepted to Wake Forest. He was the first in his family to go to college. Embarrassed at the time by his rural roots, Thompson spent the summer before his first year memorizing the street and business names of Salisbury.
âAs a boy from a small town, Salisbury was the big city,â Thompson said. “I memorized all the shops and restaurants I could so that if anyone asked me about Salisbury, I knew the story.”
After earning his undergraduate degree, Thompson earned his PA certification as part of Duke’s Medical Assistant program. Associate physicians work in conjunction with licensed physicians and have the ability to diagnose and treat illnesses and diseases and to prescribe medication to patients. Thompson also earned a master’s degree in health science from Duke.
As a young practitioner, Thompson continued to treat AIDS patients at a time when the virus was wreaking havoc without effective treatment.
âOnce you were symptomatic, you were quickly gone,â said Thompson. âIt is a devastating and aggressive disease.
As more and more research was done on the HIV virus, new drugs were developed and patient survival rates began to improve. In the mid-1990s, Thompson said, health care providers could prescribe a combination of four to five drugs that could beat HIV.
In the early 2000s, Thompson became the first PA in North Carolina and among the first 20 PAs in the country to be certified as an HIV specialist.
âNobody wanted to do it,â Thompson said. âPeople wanted to push these people around and let them die. As part of my own journey of faith, I saw a mission field and modern day lepers who needed to be loved.
Medicines and treatments for HIV continued to improve, and Thompson saw his patients live longer and longer. There are now a number of effective treatments for AIDS, as well as preventative measures such as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP.
â(In 20212), we realized that our HIV positive patients can live as long as our negative patients,â Thompson said. “… To me, it’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Thompson is the co-founder of Amity Medical Group. The healthcare provider has three locations in the greater Charlotte area, the third of which opened in September. Thompson said he had already chosen locations for the fourth and fifth clinics.
In addition to treating patients, Thompson has also lectured at many local and regional colleges and continues to be involved in research. He has personally co-investigated more than 60 clinical trials for new drugs to fight HIV.
About 1.2 million people in the United States have HIV, according to HIV.gov. As of December 31, 2019, the number of people living with HIV residing in North Carolina (including those initially diagnosed in another state) was 34,460, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Thompson said he is currently providing care to more than 800 HIV-positive patients in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
âI never imagined I would do that. I just marvel at it and I’m glad I let myself open up to ride with the changes,” said Thompson. “I’d love to do it all over again.”
Now in his 60s, Thompson is proud of his rural roots in Rowan County.