Dr. Robert Ball: How he found the first case of AIDS in South Carolina

October 13, 2008 

Dr. Robert Ball, in Charleston, diagnosed the first SC HIV case in 1982.

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM — The State

When he diagnosed South Carolina’s first AIDS case in 1982, infectious-diseases specialist Dr. Robert Ball made the history books.

And then he lost his practice.

Now, Ball is one of the state’s foremost public-health experts on HIV/AIDS.

“Many of us in infectious diseases in the early days were called to see young men with inexplicable illness,” Ball said.

Ball’s first such case came to him in May 1982.

A young man covered with drug-resistant herpes sores — on his mouth, his skin, his genitals, his anus — visited Ball’s office in Charleston.

Unsure of what was happening, Ball enlisted the help of various colleagues.

Tests showed the man’s blood contained an abnormally low number of white-blood cells called CD4 cells, what Ball calls “the conductor of the immune system’s orchestra.”

Ball told the man he had AIDS.

The diagnosis came one year after the Centers for Disease Control had published a report concerning a deadly condition observed in five young gay men in Los Angeles. Later, the condition became known as AIDS.

By the time Ball met his first patient with AIDS, public-health experts knew the condition was not confined to gay men — it was infecting heterosexuals given blood transfusions and health-care workers accidentally pricked by needles.

Soon, patients began to seek out Ball after other doctors had turned them away.

Ball quickly became known as “the AIDS doctor.” He treated young men for such unusual ailments as Kaposi’s sarcoma, virulent herpes and pneumocystis pneumonia.

Colleagues and business people urged Ball to stop treating people with AIDS.

The state’s medical association debated the ethics of refusing to treat those with HIV/AIDS.

Many of Ball’s other patients didn’t care about ethics. They were scared of becoming infected with HIV. Soon a third left his care, afraid to share a waiting room with those who had HIV/AIDS.

By 1987, Ball was working 100 hours a week but netting only $18,000 for the practice — insurance companies refused to pay many of his patients’ claims, and Ball still had to pay his staff.

Ball, a seventh-generation physician, sold his practice.

At 42, he moved to Columbia, where he earned a master’s in public health at USC, then went to work for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

In the early days, he worked closely with DHEC epidemiologist, Dr. Eric Brenner, and STD/HIV program director Lynda Kettinger to establish the state’s reporting system, and guide the state’s response to the disease.

In 1990, Ball led a team of health professionals, community advocates and others, that designed a statewide plan to attack the AIDS epidemic. The plan outlined standards for testing and treating those with HIV/AIDS.

The following year, the state won $689,000 under the federal Ryan White Care Act to implement its plan. That plan formed the basis for state’s treatment and services network in place today.

Ball still works for DHEC but has moved from working with HIV/AIDS to emerging infectious diseases.

And what of the man Ball diagnosed in 1982?

He lived 12 more years, contributing to AIDS research and education by giving blood four times a year and speaking to community groups.

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