My Birmingham: Michael S. Saag, M.D.

drsaagMichael S. Saag, M.D., is the founding director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham 1917 Clinic, which has pioneered treatment programs based on real world clinical trials and studies focused on quality improvement in the area of HIV. He also serves as the Associate Dean for Global Health in the UAB School of Medicine, Director of the UAB Center for AIDS Research and a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases. He is the principal investigator of the CFAR Network of Integrated Clinical Systems (CNICS), an NIAID-funded National Network of EMR-collected clinical data at 8 CFAR centers that are merged for the purposes of clinical research.  In 2014 he published a book, Positive: One Doctor’s Encounters with Death, Life, and the U.S. Healthcare System, a memoir about the AIDS epidemic in the South and a manifesto about healthcare delivery in the United States, now in its second edition.

This is what says “Birmingham” to Saag.

Favorite local icon: Given the leading roles you play with national and international medical organizations in your field, I’m sure you travel quite a bit. So for someone who’s traveled the globe, what do you consider the icon/physical attribute that truly makes Birmingham unique?   

Vulcan. For anyone who’s been to Birmingham, a single picture of the statue of Vulcan sitting atop Red Mountain defines the location as Birmingham. Much like the leaning tower in Pisa, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Empire State Building in New York City, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Vulcan defines Birmingham. This extends beyond the physical identity to a spiritual one. Vulcan, who is the is the god of fire, embodies metalworking and the forge in ancient Rome. The statue of Vulcan reflects Birmingham’s rich history in steel production, but moreso represents the passion and fire that resides within the people who live here, especially when it comes to college football!

Best restaurant: What is your favorite restaurant in Birmingham to unwind?

Within the rapidly emerging culinary scene in Birmingham, there is no single restaurant or eatery, but rather any one of several dozen places that serve a wide variety of food and drink, ranging from fine dining (Highlands, Hot and Hot, Bottega, Satterfield’s) to the newly established ‘joints’ in Avondale or the North Side of the city. In each case I find nurturing environments to meet with friends and family, engage in lively conversation, and share great food. This is a fantastic way to unwind.

Favorite guilty pleasure: What is your favorite place in Birmingham for a guilty pleasure, whatever it might be?

The Alys Stephens Center. While not necessarily a ‘guilty’ pleasure, listening to performances by the ASO and from a wide range of local and visiting artists is joyful. The acoustics in each of the venues of the ASC are pure, allowing the performances to transport the audience to new places and dimensions. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Place to see compassion at work: You’ve been a pioneer in HIV research since the days when a lot of people were less than compassionate towards those with the disease. How do you define compassion—and where do you see it in Birmingham?

A practical definition of compassion is treating others as if they are close family members.  I see it in every colleague and staff member with whom I work in the UAB 1917 Clinic, a true medical ‘home’ where each patient is treated as family, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, residence, religion or absence thereof. I see compassion in the LGBTQ community, who embrace diversity and provide unconditional acceptance of those who are different…almost certainly because they have struggled themselves for compassion and acceptance from the community at large. I see compassion among some in the traditional religious communities, but have been disappointed (more than I care to recall) among others who profess strong beliefs in God but who fail to ‘walk the walk’ when confronted with those who are different.  This has been perhaps my biggest disappointment in our community. I’d love to see us collectively improve in our acceptance of those who are different than ourselves and embrace them as our own. Then we will truly become a great community!

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