If you Google him, you’ll see his five-star rating.
No, he’s not a top restaurateur or hotel magnate: Dr. Mark Watkins runs a family practice in the heart of the Gayborhoood. In the healing business for over 20 years, Dr. Watkins was one of the first to treat patients with HIV and AIDS. With a roster of long-time patients and the winner of the 2008 Patient’s Choice Award, Dr. Watkins is one of our community’s quiet heroes. And boys, he’s single …
PGN: So, Doc, what made you want to get into the medical profession? MW: I always wanted to be a doctor. When I was about 4 years old, my uncle was dying of lymphoma and I remember trying to take care of him with my little doctor kit. I gave him little sugar pills and everything.
PGN: How did you even know about the profession? MW: My family doctor when I was growing up was a wonderful man and a role model. He was my biggest inspiration. He never rushed us and always addressed each individual. It never felt like you were in a factory like in some of today’s doctors’ offices, where you feel you’re just another number. I always wanted to be like Dr. Grossman. Hopefully, I’ve become the kind of doctor he was.
PGN: My doctor would pretend he was going to give you a shot in your left arm and while you were watching him on your left, he’d have his assistant jab you in the right arm. It took me years to trust what a doctor had to say! MW: That’s awful. I got lucky: He was the kind of guy who would come to our house to give us vaccines. I didn’t like shots either, but he told us exactly what was happening and I had full faith in him. I keep his obituary on my nightstand.
PGN: I still have a fear of needles. Do you have any phobias? MW: Certainly not blood. I can handle blood and guts [laughing], but I hate spiders! And I have a third-floor balcony that I can’t even look over the edge of, I have such a fear of heights. But I’m OK with airplanes. Go figure.
PGN: Where are you from? MW: I was born right here in Philadelphia. I grew up in Logan, the area where all the houses were sinking before they tore them down. I went to Incarnation of Our Lord for elementary school. Then in about fourth grade we moved to the far Northeast.
PGN: Family? MW: I have an older brother. He’s an auto mechanic. He lives out near the Poconos in the middle of the state. We’re very, very different. My mother was an office worker and my father was a tool and die maker. They live in a retirement community in Lebanon now. It’s an idyllic setting — there’s an Amish farm just across the road.
PGN: Who are you more like? MW: I think I’m an amazing blend of the two. Sometimes I’ll be talking to my mom and say, “Boy, oh boy, I’m just like my father. Stubborn.” From my mother, I get my forgiving, gentle side and honesty. She always emphasized honesty no matter what.
PGN:What sign are you? MW: I was born on Dec. 22, so I’m just on the cusp between Sagittarius and Capricorn. I think Capricorns are supposed to be perfectionists and I suppose I was competitive when I was in school, but I don’t know anything about Sagittarians.
PGN: Competitive as in team sports or math Olympics? MW: No sports. I was a big academic nerd. My brother was the macho sport guy: I was the book nerd. On a scale of 1 to 10, my athletic ability was borderline zero.
PGN: Your worst athletic experience? MW: [Laughs.] One time in college during gym class, they made me play football. I think they put me in at center or something. The one time they passed the football to me, everyone was watching me and laughing, saying, “Oh God, what’s he going to do with that?” I liked playing soccer and I was a good swimmer, but that’s about as far as it went.
PGN: Did you want to be anything other than a GP? MW: I was always interested in genetics and embryology and, for a time, I studied developmental abnormalities. I thought about going into medical research but quickly realized that [being] locked away in a lab was not going to work for me. I started medical school in ’82, at the start of the “gay plague,” and I saw a way to combine research and practicing medicine. I was out then and it was something that was affecting my community.
PGN: Where did you go to school? MW: I went to Ursinus College for undergrad and to Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school. I love being in this area.
PGN: When did you come out? MW: When I was 17, right before I went to college. I remember looking in the phonebook under gay and homosexuals and I saw a listing for the gay switchboard and a coffee shop. My parents were on vacation so I took the opportunity to go down and check it out. I went to the coffee shop and I remember it was tough to find because, in those days, there were never any signs on the gay establishments. I went in and there were four people in the shop, one of them being Mark Segal [PGN publisher]. He was the first person I spoke to and he was really great to me. In an era when so many people were led astray by sex, drugs and alcohol, he really helped me to keep a level head and I made it through the time period OK.
PGN: How did you know you were gay? MW: When my friends were going on about how attractive this girl or that girl was, I remember not noticing. I gauged how pretty a girl was by how cute the guy she was with was!
PGN: Your first awareness of HIV? MW: It was first called the gay plague and then Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and ARC, AIDS-Related Complex. I recall sitting on the floor in my house reading the newspaper about this strange disease that seemed to be affecting gay men in New York and San Francisco. It was all about Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia and whatnot and my father said, “What are you reading that stuff for?” I replied, “Oh, you know, I’m going to medical school and I think this stuff is interesting. People don’t know it yet, but I think this is going to turn into something really huge. Hopefully we’ll learn something from it, whether it’s a new cancer treatment or more about the immune system.” I know he was questioning whether I was interested in the gay aspect or the medical aspect of the issue, and of course it was both.
PGN: There was a lot of fear and ignorance about AIDS back then. I read that you were one of the first doctors to treat people with the disease in a dignified way. MW: I started my residency in 1988 and you had to work in an office setting as well as in the hospital setting. I did my internship at St. Joe’s Hospital and wanted to work with HIV, which no one else wanted to do. I tried to set a good example of how to treat patients with the disease. It was frustrating at times: The majority of physicians did not want to get involved or touch anyone with HIV/AIDS. I still can’t comprehend that mentality, as a physician, we’re supposed to look out for the good of all our patients. Thankfully things have gotten better in a short time period. I did a stint at Graduate Hospital in the ’90s and the people couldn’t have been nicer. They didn’t care if you were gay, straight or what your HIV status was. They were professional all the way around. I also worked in a small medical office. There were two men that came in that I guessed were a couple but I was too afraid to say anything. One of them came in one time and said that he would have to find a new doctor because he’d tested positive. I told him I wouldn’t be afraid to treat him and he asked if I knew that he was gay. I told him that I’d always thought so, and told him that I was gay too and we laughed. I treated him for some years. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and passed away five years ago, but his partner is still my patient, which is really nice.
PGN: How did you get your own practice? MW: In ’89, I started practicing with a Dr. Martin, who was one of the first doctors to advertise in a gay paper. He retired in ’91 and I acquired his practice. I’ve always been protective of my patients. Being out really helps, especially when I have to refer patients to other doctors. If someone makes homophobic remarks, I know not to refer any patients to them. If they can’t be respectful of me, doctor to doctor, I know they won’t treat my patients with respect, so no. No, I won’t have anything to do with them.
PGN: How did you come out at work? MW: Well, it’s funny. I was moving to Delaware and one of the male nurses asked me why I was moving. I told him it was because my boyfriend at the time lived there. The next day the whole of Graduate Hospital knew I was gay. They talk about queens gossiping, this guy was straight and he was like the Daily News! It was never an issue for me or for them. Those nurses, especially the ones who worked in HIV/AIDS, were wonderful, special people.
PGN: Do you collect anything? MW: I have a wine cellar with about 300 bottles. I collect them faster than I drink them. And after going to Russia, I have a fascination with all things Russian.
PGN: Last live production you attended? MW: Row two at Elton John’s performance at the Coliseum in Las Vegas. What’s cool is that when he ends the show with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” the first three rows get invited up on stage to dance around the piano with him. I’m a big Elton John fan, so it was fantastic. I go to see him any chance I get.
PGN:Most dangerous stunt? MW: I went to Moscow by myself, not speaking the language.
PGN: Oddest thing you ate there? MW: In one restaurant, they had beaver on the menu, but as a gay man, I was not about to go there!
PGN: A favorite toy as a kid? MW: Operation!
PGN: And yet you didn’t go into surgery? MW: Actually, I found surgery boring. Standing around in one spot over an unconscious person for hours was dull. I like to talk to my patients.
PGN: Last time you threw a snowball? MW: Last winter with my dog. He was a German Shepard that I got from two of my patients. Unfortunately he had to be put to sleep in December.
PGN: Wackiest incident as a doctor? MW: Uh, due to confidentiality, I can’t say much. Well, I had one patient who’s dead now and I think he wouldn’t mind me telling the story anyway. He and his partner had a great twisted sense of humor. I was doing a rectal exam on him one time and his partner was in the room. I pretended to fall in up to my elbow and they started laughing. The problem was that the more the guy on the table laughed, the more he tightened up and I started saying, “Oh great, now I can’t get my finger out!” We all were howling and the guy said, “Wait, I’m not the bottom, I’m a top!” and his partner in the chair almost fell on the floor. It was hysterical. Every visit with them was funny.
PGN:Any hobbies? MW: I have two salt-water fish tanks, a 200- and 300-gallon tank. It’s relaxing. You don’t have to worry about making it home in time to walk the fish. I miss my dog though.
PGN: What kind of music do you like? MW: Obviously Elton John. I like a lot of piano music. I also like Shirley Bassey. I’m always playing her in the background at work.
PGN: Do you get cookie plates, etc., from your patients? MW: Yeah, I’m spoiled. This year I got some nice Russian vodka and I have one lady who always brings me a card and a mug on the anniversary of her diagnosis.
PGN: What was the hardest part of medical school? MW: I really enjoyed medical school, so it wasn’t difficult for me. Yes, it’s intense and the hours are long. The 24-hour shifts when you’re interning or doing a residency are barbaric and I think it jeopardizes people’s lives. It’s time to get rid of that tradition. The worst part was the smell of the anatomy labs. You can’t see that on TV. I had the class right before lunch and while the other interns ate lunch, I’d run home to shower and change into fresh clothes. [Laughs.] I guess that should have been a clue to my classmates that I was gay!
PGN:Why do they make people go through those long, dangerous shifts? MW: It’s just tradition, it’s that old school “I had to do it, so you do too.” They’re starting to outlaw it in some states. I think they’ve done studies showing that driving a car after being awake for 24 hours is equal to being drunk beyond the legal limit. I certainly wouldn’t want that person working on my mother in the emergency room.
PGN:Worst clothing disaster? MW: I take the train from West Chester and there’s one guy who rides the train who is absolutely beautiful — unfortunately, he just started wearing a wedding ring — anyway, I was looking at his shoes one day and was thinking how nice his shoes were. I don’t have a foot fetish, but they were nice. I looked at my shoes and realized I was wearing two completely different shoes! I had to run home and change, I didn’t want my patients to think I was loony.
PGN: I keep reading about the bare-backing trend and other risky behavior in the current generation. Is it really going on or is it mostly media hype? MW: No, it’s going on and it’s terrible. These kids live in a world where HIV drugs have always existed. We’ve made much progress and there’s no need for people to die anymore if you get the right drug combination, but what people don’t realize is that even though you might not die, it’s still an awful thing to live with. Whether because of media or general acceptance, it’s lost its stigma and lost its fear. Crystal meth makes people feel that they’re invincible, and the number of young people coming in HIV-positive is upsetting. There are so many side effects that can occur due to the medicines, such as high cholesterol and heart attacks, that people don’t take into account. There are changes to the body, like wasting, that we don’t fully understand. Why would you want to subject yourself to that? It’s disheartening. I’m not saying that we should go back to a time of fear, but there should be an understanding of the disease and a respect for what will happen if you contract it.
PGN:One of the fears expressed about universal healthcare is that we won’t get anyone going into medicine any more and that doctors are against it. What’s your take? MW: It’ll be a double-edged sword all the way around. One of the pharmaceutical companies sent us to London years ago to see how their system operated and I didn’t like it. I don’t see it working here and you’re right, I think we would lose a lot of physicians. Already, they said that in Pennsylvania alone we will lose 40 percent of primary-care physicians in the next five years. Doctors are not making the fortunes that everyone believes. You go into the field today because you love it, not to make money. That being said, fighting with all the different insurance companies the way we have to do is ridiculous. A one-party payer system makes a lot of sense. Federal employees of the United States have the best insurance plan you could ask for. If we believe federal employees are worth it, then goddamn it, why isn’t every person in this country worthy of the same system? I mean Keystone Mercy, what a nightmare. Even with good programs like Personal Choice, I still have to get authorization to have an MRI done on someone. That I, as the doctor, have to stop and get permission from someone behind a desk is beyond words. I have an AIDS patient for whom I have to get authorization for one of his AIDS medicines. It’s atrocious. The insurance companies have too much power. They’ve gotten out of control. I won’t even take Keystone Mercy. Major changes have to be made. Mandatory coverage has to be passed.
PGN: What sort of patients do you serve? MW: I have all types of patients, from 18 to 83 years old, men and women, all races, genders and orientations. Everyone is welcome.
Dr. Mark Watkins Triangle Medical Inc. 253 S. 10th St. (215) 829-0170
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