Following the example of his physician father who spent his career treating veterans, Dr. David Di John chose to study medicine so he, too, could contribute to society.
“With the help of my father and teachers, I could see how the sciences, how medicine, afforded an opportunity to better people’s lives,” said Di John, who’s now been a physician for 37 years.
First, he immersed in the sciences at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, a school specializing in science, mathematics, and technology that has been seen as a symbol of excellence in public education for more than a century. He followed that with undergraduate work in pre-med at Columbia, the Ivy League school in Manhattan where former President Barack Obama also earned a bachelor’s degree. It was at Columbia that his commitment to public service became pronounced. He headed a community service council that worked with students from humble backgrounds.
A Personal Touch
“We went into their households to work with them,” Di John said. “We got to know their families. What I tried to do with kids is show them what was possible in a great city, what could have an impact on them educationally. We would bring them around campus, take them to important places like museums that they had never been to.
“One time we took them to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where they boarded a submarine and were able to speak with the crew. They might have been from Harlem but they had never even been to Brooklyn or Queens, never ventured out of their own neighborhoods. I wanted to expand their horizons.”
That community work with young people, coupled with the fact that he enjoyed his pediatric rotations the most while at the George Washington School of Medicine in the nation’s capital, pushed him to specialize in pediatrics.
During medical school, he had the opportunity to go overseas, to the west African nation of Gambia, to learn about tropical medicine. He saw patients with malaria and leprosy, and rural hospitals that were so crowded that children had to lie on blankets on the floor. Once he worked with a lethargic boy who had been left to die. “I was able to diagnose him with meningococcal meningitis and started treatment but I had to leave before I found out whether he lived or not,” Di John recalled. “The inadequacy of care was obvious.”
The work with infectious diseases while in medical school propelled Di John to pursue a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases through the University of Maryland. In addition to learning how to treat immune deficiency diseases, he was trained to diagnose and administer appropriate treatment to youngsters who have viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. He also was trained to work with diseases that were complicated or atypical, including illnesses that are of unclear cause, have prolonged fever, or are recurrent; respiratory infections; bone and joint infections; tuberculosis; acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); hepatitis, and meningitis.
During his fellowship, Di John thought seriously about working in international medicine, possibly for the World Health Organization. At one point, while working with indigenous peoples in Venezuela, he was part of an effort to develop a malaria vaccine.
HIV and AIDS
As it turned out, particularly with the explosion of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, there was plenty for a new pediatric infectious diseases specialist to do in the United States. He returned to his hometown of New York City, becoming highly regarded not only as a clinician but as an academic for nearly 20 years. His research, often dealing with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, was published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, Journal of Pediatrics, and Clinical Pediatrics.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Di John said there were many instances of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, which led to children dying young. “You would see heartbreaking things — a child who once was speaking and walking would become unable to talk or walk and be in a wheelchair or completely bedridden before they died.”
Di John said seeing such things took a toll on him and his team. “It was a very difficult thing to see, when you couldn’t really treat them,” he said.” There wasn’t much to offer those patients back then.”
Fortunately, with the passage of time “there has been explosion of new drugs” to deal with HIV/AIDS, he said. “Some years ago, I treated a girl in New York who had been infected at birth with HIV, who later had a baby of her own who was not infected. While now much more common, that was quite remarkable when I first saw it.”
In 2014, in pursuit of a new opportunity — “there was talk then of the opening of a new medical school in Las Vegas” — Di John moved to Nevada, becoming the section chief of pediatric infectious diseases with the University of Nevada Reno School of Medicine. In 2017, he took the same position with the new UNLV School of Medicine and later that year, when the need arose for new leadership, he became the program director for the UNLV Medicine Maternal Child Wellness Program, which is charged with caring for HIV-infected and HIV-exposed infants, children, and adolescents in Southern Nevada.
“We’ve come a long way in treating pediatric infectious diseases,” said Di John, who enjoys teaching pediatric residents. “I’m excited to see what the future will bring to help even more children.”