Kristen Ries to receive honorary degree at 2020 commencement

We know there are many questions about commencement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. No decision has yet been made. The administration is reviewing options, including a remote video feed of speeches, conferral of the Honorary Degree and Distinguished Professor Awards. We will keep each member of the campus community informed every step of the way through email alerts and the university’s COVID-19 website.

The University of Utah Board of Trustees today announced that Kristen Ries, an infectious diseases treatment expert and professor emerita, will receive an honorary doctoral degree at the 2020 campuswide convocation.

The general commencement ceremony is set for Thursday, April 30, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. The award is the highest honor given by the university.

“Our honorary degree recipient exemplified courage, compassion and service during her professional career,” said Joe Sargetakis, chair of the Board of Trustees’ honors committee. “Through her affiliation with the University of Utah, Dr. Ries helped the university succeed in its duty to serve the state.”

Honorary degrees are awarded to individuals who have achieved distinction in academic pursuits, the arts, professions, business, government, civic affairs or in service to the university. The Honorary Degree Committee, which includes representatives from the faculty, student body and Board of Trustees, reviews nominations and then consults with an advisory group of faculty, staff and administrators for additional input. Finalists are presented to the university president, who selects recipients.

Kristen Ries will receive an honorary degree at the University of Utah's 2020 commencement.

Here is a brief overview of this year’s honoree:

Ries is a professor emerita of internal medicine and retired infectious diseases physician who was at the forefront of treating patients in Utah at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ries fearlessly provided loving, compassionate care at a time when the disease was highly stigmatized.

Ries received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pennsylvania State University and a Doctor of Medicine with honors from Drexel University, where she also completed her residency, fellowship and spent two years as a faculty member in infectious diseases. She left Drexel University to join the Indian Health Services at Rosebud, South Dakota, where she cared for Lakota Sioux. She then went to Vermillion, South Dakota, to serve in the National Health Service Corps.

Ries moved to Utah in 1981 with the goal of treating more patients with infectious diseases—arriving the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report about a new infectious disease affecting gay men. Ries initially worked for FHP as the head of adult medicine, and then as a physician at Holy Cross Hospital, where she created Utah’s first comprehensive HIV/AIDS program.

For many years, Ries and Maggie Snyder, her physician assistant, were the only medical professionals willing to treat AIDS patients in Utah.

They found creative ways to serve patients and provide them with the expensive drugs then used to treat HIV/AIDS. Working with the nuns at Holy Cross, Ries and Snyder set up an end-of-life care network because nursing homes refused to take dying patients. In the early 1980s, patients diagnosed with AIDS had a life expectancy of about six months.

The refusal of health care professionals to work with AIDS patients was a national problem at the time, an issue that led the U.S. Surgeon General to publicly chastise doctors who wouldn’t take patients with the disease.

In a lecture at the U in 2017, Ries paraphrased a comment by Mother Teresa that the greatest pain in life is caused by isolation, abandonment and feeling unloved. “I think that so describes how the patients felt with this disease back then and how they were treated by our own people,” Ries said.

When Holy Cross Hospital was sold in 1994 (becoming Salt Lake Regional Medical Center), Ries joined the University of Utah’s Division of Infectious Diseases and brought 500 patients with her; the HIV clinic she set up within Clinic 1A, the Infectious Diseases Clinic, is still operating. In 2000, Ries and Snyder led efforts to establish a treatment clinic in St. George, which also continues to serve patients today.

Ries was president of the medical staff for the University of Utah Hospital & Clinics and served as the clinical director of infectious diseases/HIV at U of U Health.

In 1988, Ries was named as one of Newsweek magazine’s “Unsung Heroes”; she has been recognized by the U’s School of Medicine, the Utah Department of Health & Human Services, People with AIDS Coalition of Utah, Salt Lake County Health Department and the Utah Medical Association. In honor of her work, the Marriott Library has established an archive that collects oral histories and archives documents and other memorabilia related to the history of treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS in Utah.