To hear his protégé tell it, Dr. Joep Lange might just be the most important man you have never heard of.
“People like Joep [Lange] and Jacqueline [van Tongeren] don’t work the grueling hours that they work for fame or fortune or any kind of celebrity,” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, medical expert for The Dallas Morning News, about two of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was believed to have been shot down in Ukraine on July 17.
“It’s such anonymous, behind-the-scenes work. And that’s exactly how they want it. But it’s not an overstatement to say that they saved millions of people’s lives because of the science that they did, the ideas that they had and how much they spoke up for poor people living with HIV/AIDS.”
Yasmin wrote about Lange — a man who she credits with changing the course of her life — and his partner in life and business, van Tongeren, in Sunday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News in a piece titled, “Ukraine crash claimed not just a friend, but a ‘force to be reckoned with’ in HIV/AIDS research.” The Dallas Morning News is the media partner of NBC 5 and NBCDFW.com.
“But most people have never heard of them. So I wanted people to know that there are folks like this; who work anonymously, who work behind the scenes, who don’t care in the least about fame and fortune, but who just want to make the world a better place,” Yasmin told NBC DFW Sunday.
Lange, van Tongeren and several other researchers were traveling from Amsterdam to Australia Thursday to attend the 20th annual International AIDS Society Conference.
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Yasmin said she was in The Dallas Morning News newsroom Thursday, preparing for a satellite interview with CNN about health concerns involving the undocumented children who continue to cross the United States border with Mexico, when a CNN producer called to inform her that — due to breaking news — her interview had been canceled.
Moments later she was watching the first reports announcing the incident.
“So of course, being in a newsroom surrounded by TV monitors, we’re watching this tragedy unfold and saying, ‘Oh my goodness. This is awful. What a loss.’ And then, shortly after, I learned from my mother that people that we knew were on that plane.”
Lange was speaking in London years ago when Yasmin — then 15-years-old — introduced herself to the man who even then was pioneering research into the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She announced her intention to follow in his footsteps as a medical researcher. And much to her surprise, Lange not only listened, but also offered life-changing advice.
“He took the time to speak to me as a 15-year-old. And he gave me advice that actually changed my life,” Yasmin said. “He told me that if I wanted to change the world or do my part to make the world better that I should go to medical school.”
Since graduating from Cambridge University Medical School, Yasmin has worked in Africa, Europe and North America in epidemiology. She has worked with the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and investigated epidemics in maximum-security prisons, American Indian reservations and health care facilities, according to her personal website biography.
And all through the years, Yasmin kept in close touch with the man she describes as a mentor and his “elegant” partner. She was inspired by his efforts to increase access to lifesaving medication in the Third World — when he was quoted in the Telegraph of London saying, “if we can get cold Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs.”
“He and Jacqueline said that science was not enough. Treatments weren’t enough. That we had to look at the epidemic with compassion. It wasn’t just science and statistics. This was people that we were talking about,” Yasmin recalled.
“And now we’ve lost them. So it’s tragic. The more it sinks in the less it makes sense that we’ve lost them. And I think what can we do? And the only thing we can do is look at ourselves and each other and say, ‘ We have to stand up and do more.’” Yasmin said.