Interview with HealthRight Board of Directors member Dr. Victoria Sharp
Vicki’s start with HealthRight and Human Rights
Beginning her training in internal medicine during the first years of the AIDS epidemic, Vicki Sharp became motivated to provide care for those living with this disease. In the early years of her career, Vicki focused on HIV+ prisoners in the New York state prison system, establishing the AIDS program at Albany Medical Center. She then moved to Saint Clare’s Hospital to continue this work.
In 1993, Vicki became interested in the Haitian refugee crisis after reading about it in the New York Times. In learning about the refugees who had left Haiti after the coup of their president and their subsequent detainment at Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. Coast Guard, Vicki contacted Doctors of the World to see how she could assist the detainees. A week later, Vicki was on a plane to Guantanamo Bay. As she learned, the refugees who had tested positively for HIV were being held at Camp Bulkeley much like prisoners. While at Guantanamo, Vicki interviewed these patients to assess their quality of care at the “world’s first HIV prison camp,” as she found it was appropriately titled.
Upon her return to the United States with the newly collected data from her interviews and assessments, Vicki helped to lead a lawsuit in Federal Court against the refugees’ detainment, arguing that the conditions in the camps were not conducive to care and that the patients must be brought into the U.S. The lawsuit was successful.
HealthRight’s Early Days
In the early days, Doctors of the World, which would eventually splinter into HealthRight International, was the lead international medical organization. Jonathan Mann, the founder of HealthRight, sought to expand upon Doctors of the World’s model to address the lack of emphasis on linking health and human rights. When Mann founded HealthRight to carry out this mission, the organization had 1 or 2 paid staff and about 5 board members. According to Vicki, during this time, meetings were sometimes chaotic and disorganized; however, the organization still worked to foster collaboration between clinicians, public health workers, and more. Some of the earliest projects, besides the Guantanamo Bay project, included working on tuberculosis screenings and prevention among the Albanian population in Kosovo and sending volunteers to Chiapas, Mexico to work in hospitals to increase access to health care for indigenous populations. As Vicki noted, HealthRight wanted to emphasize the necessity of working with local populations and sought to promote sustainability in their programs.
Vicki’s Role Today and in the Future
Today, Vicki sees herself as the “historian” of HealthRight, having been a part of the organization from the very beginning. Her longstanding commitment to HealthRight has allowed her to reflect on issues of the past as a way into the future and has played an integral role in the development of the organization. She wholeheartedly supported HealthRight’s partnership with NYU’s College of Global Public Health, as she realized that NYU could be an important intellectual resource, especially in grant-writing.
Vicki is looking forward to HealthRight’s new strategy to act as a greater support for local NGOs. She feels it’s an acknowledgement that the public health space is crowded as far as accessing sufficient funding. Quite simply put, Vicki stated that the organization had to ask itself “does HealthRight make sense today?” Supporting and solidifying that connection with local NGOs demonstrates an understanding that organizations need to evolve to meet the needs of the current public health climate. Vicki also noted that this model gives credence to HealthRight’s mission, which focuses on empowering local populations. She stated: “We are learning from them instead of saying that we already know how to manage all types of health situations.”
Dr. Victoria Sharp is a leading expert in the provision of HIV/AIDS care and treatment, with particular focus on marginalized populations. She has served on overseas assignments with Doctors of the World in the capacity of medical advisor in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (conditions of prisoners with HIV); Macedonia (Kosovar refugee crisis); Thailand (health care for Burmese refugees); Russia (at-risk youth); Kosovo (disabled children and health care for minority populations); and Kenya (establishment of a comprehensive HIV clinic). She has also provided training to physicians and harm reduction workers in Kazakhstan.
Vicki is Director of the HIV Center for Comprehensive Care at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, one of the largest AIDS centers on the East Coast. She has an academic appointment at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Vicki has a long history of work with charitable endeavors, including terms as a Director on the Boards of the AIDS Action Council in Washington’ D.C.; the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center; and the Jacob Perlow Hospice, Beth Israel Health System. Vicki has served as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on AIDS, under President Clinton, and as the Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the NYS AIDS Advisory Council. She recently completed a term as Chair of the Physicians Advisory Committee of the AIDS Institute.
Vicki holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkley and an MD from the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. She completed her residency at the Albany Medical Center and at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.