Emory Report
May 8, 2006
Volume 58, Number 30


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May 8 , 2006
A promise of passion: Nahmias shines light on AIDS’ smallest victims

By michael terrazas

André Nahmias has passion. Lots of it. It bubbles over during breakfast as the professor emeritus of pediatrics and public health talks about children, and about AIDS, and about children with AIDS—much like the characters who inhabit a new play/cantata Nahmias has created with the help of colleague Tamara Makdad Albrecht from Emory’s music department.

Children of AIDS: The Grief and The Promise is a four-act play/cantata that attempts to chronicle the history of AIDS reflected through what Nahmias says is a too-often overlooked segment of its victims: children. It follows the story of Adorée, who learns as a 12-year-old in 1989 that she is infected with HIV, grows into a teenager who can manage the disease with the help of newly discovered medications, then becomes a pediatrician herself dedicated to helping the world’s children overcome and prevent the disease that so affected her life.

“That’s the promise,” says Nahmias, with a reminder that—at least in Africa—HIV does not have to infect children to threaten their lives. Millions of African children live today as orphans of the disease that killed both of their parents. “Can we do for sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries,” he asks, “what we have done for developed countries?”

Nahmias himself has done quite a bit, locally and globally. In 1983, he helped to establish in Georgia the first pediatric AIDS clinic at Grady Hospital and the state’s AIDS task force. A year later he founded in Geneva the International Interdisciplinary AIDS Foundation, then helped organize the first conference on AIDS’ effects on heterosexual women, children and adolescents.

By then, Nahmias had obtained one of the National Institutes of Health’s first multi-institutional drug discovery grants that paved the way for Emory to become a leader in the development of effective AIDS drugs. With collaborators from Emory’s Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Nahmias helped establish Grady as the first site in the nation to regularly test (with consent) pregnant women for HIV in 1987—this at a time when AIDS was still perceived as a disease that predominantly affected homosexual men and intravenous drug users, a stigma that resulted in little national attention and less funding. The early testing at Grady prevented breast milk transmission of HIV, as positive mothers were advised not to nurse their babies.

Still, the jump from pediatrics to playwriting is one not too many people make, but then Nahmias always has had an appreciation for the artistic side of life. After leaving his native Egypt in the late 1940s to study at the University of Texas, he wrote several plays. Still relevant is one entitled Who Does He Think He Is?, which featured an Animal Farm-style chorus of creatures decrying the hubris of man, as humanity threatened to wipe out not only his own species but all others through nuclear holocaust.

But, after enrolling in medical school at George Washington University, there followed a period of some three decades during which he simply did not have time to pursue his humanistic side. In a 2000 Academic Exchange essay, Nahmias wrote, “My freshman year [at George Washington] was the worst in my life, partly due to my holding three jobs, but primarily because I had to leave behind all pretense of using my brain, except for rote memory.”

In 1989, Nahmias’ brain got the interdisciplinary workout it had missed for so long when its owner enrolled in one of former Professor Jim Gustafson’s Luce Seminars. At last, Nahmias was able to gather with colleagues from around Emory’s many schools and disciplines to engage in wide-reaching discussions about ideas important to all—like that year’s theme, “ Responsibility.”

Following his retirement in 2003, Nahmias continued to let his curiosities range, auditing classes in everything from music and drama to philosophy and literature. “I’ve taken at least a dozen courses since I retired,” he says. “The best thing is you don’t have to take any tests—none of my concerns as a premed student about, ‘Will I get a B-plus or an A-minus?’”

One of those courses has led to something far more satisfying than a good grade; it was in one of Albrecht’s music history classes that the two met again (she had taught music to his young children 10 years earlier).
Nahmias shared that he was writing a play about children and AIDS, asking if Albrecht would be interested in composing music for a children’s choir. After some conversations and trials, Nahmias’ play turned into Nahmias’ and Albrecht’s play/cantata.

“The combination of music and text hits the core of what we’re dealing with; to me, there’s no better way than music to convey emotion,” says Albrecht, music historian and director of Emory’s Children’s Music Development Center. “I meshed different historical styles of music: There’s organum, which is a kind of medieval chant, and there’s African drumming. There are hand bells, which are a more Western kind of instrument, and a xylophone, which is modeled after African instruments.”

Filling out nearly all of the play’s cast are children, from elementary to high school, and the lead of Adorée is played by one of Albrecht’s own children: Esther Albrecht, daughter of Tamara and Timothy Albrecht, professor of church music and University organist. Not only that, but many of the play’s musicians and crew are from Emory: philosophy Professor Richard Patterson plays the cello; Mike Cebulski and Rebecca Alexander from music play percussion; Assistant Professor Sheryl Henderson from pediatrics plays the harp. Coincidentally, even the lighting designer is named Rachel Emory.

When the lights go up in Cannon Chapel on Friday, May 12, at 5 p.m., it will be The Grief and The Promise’s second performance run: It debuted with a two-show run in February at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

Armed with positive feedback from those shows, the playwright and songwriter, with the help of Director Marty Barrett, have improved their material for the May 12 reprise performance, which is part of Emory Weekend.

Though admission is free, donations again will be accepted. In February, all donations went to Camp High Five, a nonprofit for kids whose lives have been touched by HIV/AIDS. Donations received during the Emory performance will support the Rollins School of Public Health’s Hubert Department of Global Health.

“The kids [in the cast] love it,” Albrecht says of the benefit performances. “They take on active roles as advocates—they want to know more, and they get excited about helping other kids in the world.

The Grief and The Promise could indeed yield even greater promise. Fresh from winning first prize at a World AIDS Day competition in December, the show has proven to be an entertaining, powerful way to call attention to AIDS victims who don’t often make headlines, and it no doubt will be performed again. Nahmias hopes to make the play and the music available free of charge to nonprofit or governmental organizations.

“It’s very timely with all the recent interest in Africa,” Nahmias says. “We’re finally getting leaders to realize—and act on—a problem that’s been recognized for more than 25 years.”