New York City's 'Gay Health Warrior'

Demetre Daskalakis is an infectious disease physician who hung up his lab coat to bring HIV screening and counseling to Manhattan’s gay nightlife.
Nir Elias/Reuters

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis cannot fall asleep. Like they have for many physicians, years of late shifts and early rounds have battered his schedule and etched deep grooves beneath his tired, dark brown eyes. But while his colleagues toss and turn, Daskalakis spends his nights patrolling Paddles—a Manhattan S&M club where men check both coats and clothing at the door and pay $40 to wade through faux smoke and loud music in search of a tryst.

Behind the club’s cavernous common room, lined with ornamental shackles and blush-worthy murals, Daskalakis operates a cramped clinic out of makeshift office space. As men queue up for free HIV and Hepatitis C screenings throughout the night, Daskalakis (whom the men fondly refer to as “Dr. Demetre”) offers his humorous, down-to-earth counsel during their 30-minute wait for the results.

“Demetre’s level of engagement is outstanding,” Hunteur Vreeland, a promoter and host at Paddles, told me in the relative privacy of the nightclub’s staff-only bathroom. “He is an amazing fit, a friendly face for people who have questions about their health. He is just what the community needs.”

Dr. Demetre, the self-described “gay health warrior” who fought to bring the clinic to the club, caught some media attention last year when he took to the streets to administer vaccines during New York City’s meningitis scare. In only a matter of days, with the help of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York City-based non-profit, Daskalakis vaccinated hundreds of high-risk patients and helped stave off the meningitis outbreak.

Now a senior faculty member at Mount Sinai Hospital, and recently named New York City's assistant health commissioner in charge of HIV, Daskalakis, 40, has undeniable gravitas lurking beneath his boyish features. He recently began to collate lessons learned from those odd office hours at Paddles into a research paper published last month in LGBT Health, which shows that men at high risk for HIV may misjudge their vulnerability to the deadly disease.

“HIV risk has been swept under the carpet by medical providers,” Daskalakis says. “This study informs providers that HIV risk assessment needs to be a priority.”

But long before Paddles and published papers, the Harvard-educated infectious disease doctor was a public health advocate, searching for better ways to help the growing number of men who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors.

“Demetre works 24/7,” says Michael Macneal, Daskalakis’s husband of three years. “When I met him, he was already doing outreach in the gay community, passing out condoms and performing HIV tests.”

Macneal, a wiry fitness instructor with no formal medical training, helps out by sorting through piles of paperwork and following Daskalakis into nightclubs, standing guard outside his husband’s private medical consultations.

Daskalakis grew up in Arlington, Virginia, but felt drawn to the big city from a young age, so he enrolled in Columbia University immediately after high school. Daskalakis recalls the day that his parents drove him up to Columbia. “We crossed the George Washington Bridge, there was a car on fire and a dead dog in the gutter. My father said, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said ‘Keep on going!’”

As a student, Daskalakis’s maverick taste for the unknown brought him to Manhattan’s East Village on many a weeknight, where his brushes with LGBT nightlife would ultimately shape his perspective in caring for a diverse patient population. “I learned my bedside manner from East Village drag queens,” he jokes.

Although he followed a pre-medical curriculum while at Columbia, by his senior year Daskalakis was still unsure of what field of medicine he would pursue. But that changed once he became involved in a student-run campaign to bring AIDS awareness to the campus. The centerpiece of the event was the display of a patch from the NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the task of flying to San Francisco to pick up the artwork fell to Daskalakis.

Presented by

Joshua A. Krisch is a science journalist based in New York City. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics.

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