Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
“Buongiorno!” greets my friendly server, Orietta, as I sit down for breakfast. Just steps away is an elaborate buffet, which my eager little hands can’t wait to dig into. I’m staying here at the spectacular Castello del Nero, a twelfth-century former noble country residence just outside Florence. The windows near my table provide sweeping views of the legendary rolling Tuscan hills. The hotel, the land, and the food are purely, simply…heaven.
As I drink the hotel’s own scrumptious concoction of carrots, lemons, and oranges, the guy at the next table and I begin to chat. I learn he’s from Los Angeles and works in development at Walt Disney Pictures. His name is Doug Lowell and he’s also the founder of Find A Cure Panel, an organization dedicated to “[e]mpowering people to impact research,” as its Web site states. In this past year they’ve raised about 10K for thirty HIV/AIDS nonprofits.
After breakfast we tour the colorful, lush grounds, including the Olympic-size pool, the warehouse-size gym, and the art-clad lobby. We pass frescoes, vaulted ceilings, and fireplaces in the common areas. Doug and I settle in the stone walled bar area that was once originally the family’s kitchen.
Ruby Comer: Doug, I’m not sure I fully grasp the concept…can you expound on what Find A Cure Panel [FACP] is?
Doug Lowell: Sure, Ruby. Find A Cure Panel specializes in patient research for serious and rare diseases, including HIV. Essentially, FACP is a platform for people to share their opinions and experiences about their condition and treatment. For every completed survey, FACP donates money to the nonprofit of the respondent’s choice. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Win for the researchers because they are interested in the opinions of people with HIV; a win for FACP because we specialize in finding people with HIV; a win for the patients with HIV because they get to share their opinions while supporting nonprofits doing vital work in their community; and finally, a win for the HIV nonprofits because they get to engage their community while developing an ancillary source of revenue.
What a great concept. What propelled you to establish this group?
Sample Czar, the parent company of FACP, specializes in finding people to participate in on-line research across a number of different categories, including physical ailments. There are 2,000-plus diseases and many of those afflicted cannot easily be found in the general population.We created a new model, philosophy, and strategy to find those folks with serious and rare diseases such as HIV. So, we created FACP. HIV is a core category and one that we continue to be very interested in. [He stops instantly and motions for me to look out the window. A deer peers back at me, then scurries.]
How lovely, Doug. Say, how long has FACP existed?
Sample Czar has existed for over seven years and Find A Cure Panel for about four years. FACP has continued to grow rapidly with the increase of online access and the growth of various forums, blogs, chats, etc., dedicated to disease and patient communities. We now have the ability to research patient communities that we have never been able to reach. So it’s an exciting time for patient research, including HIV.
So, how did your organization raise 10K for HIV nonprofits?
Participants complete an HIV-related survey and FACP donates x dollars to a nonprofit of the respondent’s choice. We’ve done three or four HIV-related surveys over the last few years. Participants are not paid to participate and each survey takes about twenty minutes. They are incentivized by a donation made to a nonprofit of their choice. So instead of reaching into their checkbook and writing GMHC a check for fifty dollars, we do it for them.
After a few cups-o-tea, we depart. I head back to my room that has not one, but two gorgeous views. Stretching out on the goose-down king-size bed, I think about my conversation with Doug, wondering how big FACP is. I then grab for Shirley MacLaine’s enlightening new tome, I’m Over All That, and read a couple of chapters until it’s time to head over to Espa. Afterward I repair to Espa, the hotel’s spa, for some rejuvenation. While checking in at the starkly decorated, incense-infused Espa vestibule, I inhale their gentle aromatherapy and am instantly lulled into a tranquil state. I take a moment and look over at the water that slowly trickles down the hefty glass window that’s behind the lobby desk. Then zap! I realize I’ve forgotten my Mossimo laced 2-piece bathing suit. I slowly rush back to my room, bumping into Doug in the lobby.
I’m glad this happened. I have a question: How many team members do you have for Sample Czar and FACP? Do you have volunteers as well as employees?
We have about ten people for both groups, and we do have a huge number of contractors that work with us, but more for Translation Czar, which is our translation company. As for the volunteers, we do work with a lot of support group leaders, Facebook admin, forum creators, etc., who help with recruitment for FACP.
I want to know how the epidemic has had an impact on you?
AIDS and all diseases have an impact on every member of the community. It is the responsibility of me and every member of the community to develop awareness and promote treatment for HIV/AIDS and other serious diseases. Before I started FACP, I cannot say that I knew anyone with HIV. Now I know hundreds of people with HIV—many of whom have become friends. I also have relationships with over fifty different HIV organizations.
Holy cow, this is fabulous. Ya know, along our walk today you mentioned HIV stigma….
Yes, we feel it’s important to reduce the stigma of HIV, so we articulate this philosophy in our relationships with organizations and people with HIV. In fact, we have seen a significant decrease in the stigma over the last several years since we started Find a Cure Panel. [He gracefully repositions his glasses.] When we first started FACP, Ruby, we had very reputable HIV nonprofits tell us, “Well, we can’t send this informational e-mail out to our members because this may be suggesting that they have HIV…and we don’t want to do that with the stigma.” We told them, “Look. It’s just like any other disease. To reduce the stigma, you need to embrace that philosophy. Until you do, there will always be a stigma.”
Thank you, Doug, for this informative chat. [He nods and heads out the huge Tuscan doors into the Italian countryside.]
I fetch my bathing suit and return to Espa. After my steam and sauna, I dip into the Vitality Pool. In it, there are several options of pulsating water. I try the one where the water is so forceful that it lifts my body to the top and I feel as though I’m levitating. I then gravitate toward the jet spray that massages my shoulders and back. After the ‘treatment’ I sit in the area where the gurgling bubbles gyrate over my body. I’d like to pack this place up and carry it home in my suitcase! With my head tilted upward, resting on the side of the pool, I recall something else Doug had said during our morning stroll about the AIDS epidemic and FACP:
“It is a global disease that is virtually in every country in the world and it’s also a very actively researched disease. FACP is committed to promoting related research in HIV [he paused for effect]—and we feel strongly that it’s one disease that could have a cure in the next generation….”
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]