Doctor Describes Work Helping At-Risk Children in Brazil

By Kate Volkman Oakes

Not long after Irene Adams, MD, moved to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1986, she met some street kids who stole her heart. “These children go on the streets at 5, 6, 7 years old,” she says. “They’re sexually active at a very young age. They’re using drugs. Their parents aren’t part of their lives and they don’t go to school. They steal — that’s how they get money. They have very low self-esteem. If you don’t like yourself, think you’re no damn good, why would you protect yourself against anything — traffic accidents, drug overdose, AIDS?” As a doctor who recently had learned about AIDS, Adams was deter¬mined to educate these children about the new disease. With financing from the National Institutes of Health, and in collaboration with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Federal University of Minas Gervais in Brazil, Adams helped found the AMMOR Clinic. AMMOR is an acronym in Portuguese, which translates to Multiple Professional Action with Children at Risk. Its original intent was to offer general health services to street kids and educate them about AIDS. But “within the first week, it became very clear that our mission was not prevention of AIDS,” says Adams. “It was the rescue of these kids. They have no idea about their bodies — they don’t know about STDs, pregnancy, wound care. That’s why our mission statement is ‘education for life through health.’ I’m not there to treat their illnesses; I’m there to help them find themselves.” In the process, Adams found herself as well. “My life took on significance and meaning,” she reflects. After graduating from UCSF School of Medicine in 1963, Adams moved to New York for a residency in internal medicine and oncology at Cornell medical school and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She married Dutch economist A.C. Bruinsma, who took a job with Shell International Petroleum Company. They moved to London, where their daughter was born; Maracaibo, Venezuela, where their son was born; Caracas; Santiago, Chile; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1986, Adams and her husband decided the family would stay in Brazil because they felt they could make a difference there in a way they couldn’t in the United States or Holland. That’s when he left Shell and took a position at a company in Belo Horizonte.

‘Love at First Sight’

Each time they moved, she would set up the family home, get the kids into school and then set off for the local university, offering her medical services. Over the years, she picked up new specialties and interests, one of which was immunology. So when she arrived in Belo Horizonte, Adams wanted to learn about a new disease called AIDS. She attended a lecture and saw a slide that showed the structure of the AIDS virus. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “Immunology is fascinating to me.” Simultaneously with her work at the AMMOR Clinic, Adams began a private practice, where she treated HIV-positive patients. She admits, “My original interest was purely scientific; but when I started to see patients, I saw this disease was different. It wasn’t like cancer or lupus. These people had tremendous guilt, lived in isolation and had to deal with the fact that they were going to die. It was a very, very, very rough time in my life — sitting across the table from somebody telling him he’s got AIDS. “I got involved in a support group. I have to be honest; I think I’m a better person since I started working with AIDS. I’ve never kissed and hugged so many people in my life. One of the first things I do with a patient is shut the door behind him and say, ‘Now it’s just you and me,’ and give him a hug.” Four years after the AMMOR Clinic was established, public financing ran out. Adams set off with her photo album for Holland, where she raised enough money to keep the AMMOR Clinic afloat. But after a few years, that money ran out too. Now the funding comes from a few private donors in Brazil, and she dreams of an American organization that would raise funds stateside. In the meantime, she’s planning a benefit in 2009 in San Francisco. Adams expanded the AMMOR Clinic to treat all children at social risk, including those who have been abandoned or are victims of family violence. Most of the 2,200 children who have seen “Dr. Irene” were referred by one of 72 governmental or nongovernmental organizations. Along with providing medical care, she and her volunteers educate at-risk kids about sex, drug use and human rights. They also train adults who work with at-risk kids. From 1995 to 2006, Adams also was the clinical director of a 24-bed hospital for terminal cancer and AIDS patients, which included night duty on Fridays and 24-hour duty on Sundays. When the hospital was closed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Belo Horizonte, she created the AMMOR Project. The project provides legal support for people living with HIV and AIDS whose rights have been violated, a support group, income-generation activities, a gymnasium, a nutritionist and a psychologist. Due to her own health, Adams has slowed down, just a bit, in the last couple of years. She still works for the AMMOR Clinic and project six days a week, and has 172 unanswered emails in her inbox and 35 items on her “to do” list. “As long as I’m of sound mind, I plan to work until my day comes,” she says. And when that day comes, she plans to be laid to rest in the place where she came alive — Belo Horizonte.