By Christine Zilius Mason
When Santa Cruz writer Gabriel Constans met Dr. Arnold Leff in the
early '90s, they were both working for Hospice of Santa Cruz. Their
continuing association over the years led to Constans chronicling his
friend's life as a physician, vocal health care reformer and antiwar
activist in "Paging Doctor Leff: Pride, Patriotism and Protest."
Leff's main interest in having the biography written was to document
issues surrounding the Vietnam War, in the hopes that people could
learn from his experiences. In 1969, Leff, an idealistic and naive
young doctor, enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to a base in
Thailand. He soon became aware of the unofficial operations the U.S.
was waging in Laos, bombing villages and then claiming they were
"communist strongholds." He provided the Fulbright Commission in
Washington D.C. with documentation of the carnage caused by the
bombings, and became disillusioned when the bombings continued and
spread into Cambodia.
While still a captain in the Air Force in Thailand, Leff began living
in "The Bungalow," a house where musician members of the Air Force,
travelers and Peace Corps workers congregated, loosely forming an
anti-war group, some of whom, including Leff, wore black arm bands to
protest the war in Vietnam. He spoke publicly against the enforcement
of marijuana laws in the Air Force, arguing that the use of milder
drugs often kept soldiers from resorting to opium and heroin. He
further raised the ire of his superiors by his protests against
racial discrimination in the Air Force.
When he finished his tour in Thailand, Leff was transferred to
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He lived on a commune,
commuting to the base while sporting long hair and a beard, and
during the same time volunteered at the Cincinnati Free Clinic.
Subsequently, he took a series of jobs in the public health sector in
Ohio, working on drug and alcohol abuse, STDs and other medical
problems. He advocated and implemented numerous reforms, including
the immunization of schoolchildren and the improvement of conditions
in nursing homes and state hospitals.
During the 1980s, Leff continued to implement innovative health care
reforms as director of Health Services for Contra Costa County and
later as the Santa Cruz County health director. He established a
private practice in 1986 in Santa Cruz and began investigating new
treatments for AIDS patients, including the use of a cocktail of
several drugs, even for those in less-severe stages of the disease.
He also served as the director of the Hospice Caring Project.
Leff lives in Boulder Creek. He works at the HIV Clinic at Valley
Medical Center and teaches at Stanford University Medical School. He
believes that "if you really put your mind to it, you can accomplish
a lot in the public sector even in difficult conditions."
In his book, Constans quotes Leff as saying, "... what gives me the
biggest kick of all is being a good doctor.'"
The book can be purchased at: Cacoethes Publishing -
http://www.cacoethespublishing.com under the section Book - Category:
Biographies & Memoirs.