Mike Alcalay (1941-2006) Remembered on World AIDS Day
November 30, 2006
Judith Scherr, Berkeley Daily Planet
Countless lives have been touched by Dr. Mike Alcalay who died Nov. 18 in Oakland from a rare and aggressive leukemia, after surviving AIDS for more than 20 years.
“He was not a person to be defeated by the obstacles of life. In fact, they became a creative hurdle,” said his friend Sherry Gendelman.
Born into a working class family in Los Angeles in 1941, Alcalay won full scholarships to UC Berkeley and UCLA medical school. He served as a military doctor for a year in Vietnam, where he became radicalized, according to an obituary written by Alcalay’s family and his longtime friend Charlie Hinton.
Hinton writes: “Mike played the saxophone and spoke Spanish. He was a gay man who transcended gay politics; a Jew who demonstrated against the Israeli occupation of Palestine two months before he died; a doctor who asked to be called ‘Mike,’ because he thought the title ‘doctor’ separated him too much from his patients, a generous anarcho-communist who grew marijuana to give it away, and enrolled more than 1,000 patients for medical cannabis, never asking a penny in return.”
In the 1970s he founded a clinic in a Watsonville storefront that has grown into the clinic Salud Para la Gente, serving Pajaro Valley farmworker families and the poor. Today, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the clinic gets 100,000 patient visits each year.
“Anyone who was disadvantaged through no fault of his own, he took under his wing,” Gendelman said.
Alcalay was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s and in 1987 began to produce the KPFA radio show “AIDS in Focus,” which aired through 1993. “He made sure people were aware of the issues around HIV,” said Berkeley resident Gerald Lenoir, board chair of the HIV Education & Prevention Project of Alameda County, on which Alcalay also served.
Lenoir, former director of the Black Coalition on AIDS, said that at a time when it was hard to find a way to educate people about HIV, Alcalay provided access to the airwaves. And Alcalay wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues such as “exposing the government’s role in the lack of funding for AIDS,” Lenoir said.
Jeff Jones, co-founder and executive director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative, recalls that Alcalay first came to the clinic—when it was dispensing medical marijuana before legal issues arose to prevent it from doing so—for personal use of the medicine to combat nausea brought on by AIDS drugs.
He became the co-op’s medical director and a spokesperson for medical marijuana. “He looked at medical marijuana as a civil rights problem,” Jones said.
In a 1998 opinion piece published in The San Francisco Chronicle: “The 57-year-old Alcalay is a good advertisement for the medical benefits of marijuana. He is on a harsh regimen of protease inhibitors. He takes 40 to 60 pills a day, including three experimental drugs, and he credits pot for keeping him alive and healthy.
“’It’s hard to define how because it helps in so many modes,’ [Alcalay] says. ‘It gives you an appetite, eliminates queasiness, nausea and helps with pain. I call it a wonder drug.’”
Alcalay also worked with the Santa Cruz Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, where he wrote recommendations for the medicine for seriously ill patients. “He never charged his patients for visits,” said Wo/Men’s Director and Co-founder Valerie Corral, describing Alcalay as “one of the few physicians who really lived the Hippocratic oath.”
Oakland attorney Robert Raich worked with the doctor on legal issues around medical marijuana. Raich remembers him especially for daring to work with children. “He broke through the barrier preventing children from having access to medical marijuana,” Raich said, noting that now numerous pediatricians recommend the medicine.
“He was so selfless,” Raich said. “He could have tried to make a lot of money—not Dr. Alcalay—he was committed to social justice.”
Outspoken AIDS activist John Iversen recalls that in 1998, Alcalay was instrumental in forcing Alameda County to renovate a new AIDS ward at Fairmont Hospital. “I have lost a friend and a true ally,” writes Iversen in an email sent from out-of-town.
“Just a week before his death Mike got a call from Nick [Lazaredes], inviting him to work with the new English language Al Jazeera network. Mike wanted to do this … and so much more,” writes Charlie Hinton and Alcalay’s family. “He fought and refused to accept death until, always the doctor, he read his own diagnosis in the hospital after completing his fourth round of chemo and understood he was not going to make it. He died five days later.”
Alcalay is survived by twin sons, Nolen and Aaron Edmonston, his mother Charlene Herbert, stepfather Alvin Lau, two brothers and a sister.
A memorial celebration will take place Sunday, Jan. 14, Vista Room at Lake Merritt’s lakeside Park Garden Center, 666 Bellevue Ave., Oakland. 2-10 p.m.