For the Lives of Others

Physician Dr. Heiko Jessen teaches and conducts research into the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). He‘s been at the forefront of the epidemic since the very beginning – and he wants to witness its end

Dr. Heiko Jessen Foto: Praxis Jessen² + Kollege

Motzstraße 19, a turn-of-the-century building like so many others in Schöneberg. Nothing here would suggest that life is being fundamentally transformed at this address. One has to read the sign over the doorbell carefully to see that the doctor‘s office inside is a special one: „J2 – Dr. med. H. Jessen and Dr. med. A. B. Jessen – General Medicine, Infectious Diseases, Proctology and Sports Medicine.“

„We‘re a doctor‘s office for everyone, albeit with a special orientation,“ explains Dr. Heiko Jessen, silver-haired with dark glasses. He sits at a large wooden conference table. His bookshelves contain carefully sorted titles such as Gay Short Fiction and Men on Men alongside Thieme‘s Book of Internal Medicine and Diabetes Today. „I set up my office in 1994 for a minority,“ explains Jessen. Back then, in his application for credit, he wrote that he intended to use the money to invest in a physician‘s office that focused on „men who have sex with men.“

Jessen set up his office in the City West area, that is, in the middle of the world‘s oldest rainbow neighborhood. And his practice has grown steadily since that day. Today, there are two Jessens practicing medicine here – Heiko and brother Arne – hence the name J2. Three further specialists, three residents and one intern round out the team. Today, their offices extend over 700 square meters and two floors. And there‘s one more feature: the office is open 365 days a year.

It was not always clear that Heiko Jessen would become a specialist for infectious diseases. He had encountered the subject of HIV in the 1980s as a student in San Francisco, where the epidemic was raging at the time: „People were dying in vast numbers. There was so much despair. It was so merciless. At the time, I wasn‘t sure if I could do it for a lifetime.“ After a few detours, he decided he wanted to do it after all. And he succeeded entirely. Indeed, two of his patients wrote medical history.

Jessen points to the top shelf and the copy of „The New England Journal of Medicine,“ one of the medical field‘s most respected journals. And one in which Jessen himself has published. His essay focuses on the „Berlin Patient,“ a man who had HIV and was then considered cured. The physician puts it a bit more cautiously: „Today, they control the virus without medication.“ Jessen uses the plural because there are, in fact, two „Berlin patients,“ a fact that is often forgotten.

Jessen reminisces about his career. The beginning, when almost every week brought the death of a young HIV patient. And the hostility of his colleagues, their accusations that he had falsified diagnoses and was bribed by the pharmaceutical industry. Jessen never let this get him down, however. He continued on, and today he teaches at Berlin‘s Charité Hospital and is still involved in research.

One floor up, there is a nitrogen tank containing the blood samples of newly infected patients. These anonymous samples are sent to the USA. Jessen cooperates with universities and Research & Developement institutes engaged in the fight against HIV: Berlin‘s Robert Koch Institute and Harvard University in the USA, to name just two.

„This epidemic is the challenge of my generation. And there‘s reason for optimism.“ Heiko Jessen was there from the very beginning of HIV, and he‘s looking forward to witnessing its demise. „I have committed large parts of my life to treatment and care cure and helping to with the start of finding a cure. So it would be nice if it would show up, at the latest when I retire.“ Jessen is 57. In other words, there are still a couple of years to go.

Susanne Hörr
Kluge Köpfe 2015