In 1981, Dr. Ira Greene was already a well-respected and beloved doctor. As the Chief of Dermatology at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC), he began seeing an increasing number of patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). At the time, he didn’t know that he was treating an illness that would soon grow into an epidemic.
Greene attended medical school at the University of North Carolina, and after initial training as an internist in Arizona, he made his way to Stanford for a residency in dermatology. He eventually became a clinical professor there, in addition to his role at VMC.
The KS cases Greene saw in the early 1980s caught his attention because they began appearing in relatively young men. Until that time, KS was an extremely rare condition that mostly afflicted elderly patients. Because Greene had experience in internal medicine, he also took note of the strange mix of skin lesions, swollen glands, lethargy, pneumonia, and other symptoms affecting these patients.
That laundry list of symptoms soon became associated with the syndrome doctors would come to call AIDS. Greene’s knowledge and background as a gay health care professional made him a logical choice for leading the effort to combat the emerging disease. Alongside Dr. David Stevens, Greene established a specialty treatment center at VMC that eventually became known as the Partners in AIDS Care and Education (PACE) Clinic. However, it was his empathy and connection to his patients that truly made him the right person for the job.
By 1988, Greene became associate director of Santa Clara County’s AIDS program. Even though that leadership role took much of his time, Greene never stopped seeing people with AIDS one-on-one as a primary care physician. His compassion during these often bleak years was steadfast. He did all that he could for his patients, often securing experimental treatments in a last-ditch effort to save the dying.
Friends who knew Greene saw the emotional toll that this work exacted. He developed many close personal ties to patients who ultimately succumbed to the epidemic. Still, he continued to make visits to AIDS patients through the 1990s.
“When you work with dying people, you learn a lot about yourself. You are forced to confront your own feelings about death. You feel very mortal,” Greene said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in the late 1980s.
Tragically, Greene died in 1998 when his Palo Alto home caught fire. It was a shocking loss for the community.