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Meet Sean Kelly

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sean Kelly.

Hi Sean, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I am the medical director of the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Clinic (VCCC), Tennessee’s largest HIV treatment center, and the founder of The Ruby Gala.

I became a Nashvillian in 2016 and, since then, have been working with the Mayor’s office, health department, and many other agencies to end the HIV epidemic in our city. In 2019, I founded (and currently co-chair) The Ruby Gala to support this effort.

To best explain the purpose of The Ruby Gala, I’ll first provide some background: In the early years of the VCCC, HIV was an unstoppable epidemic that devastated our community (in 1994, the year VCCC was founded, we lost a patient every day to AIDS).

As revolutionary new therapies were developed, we learned that although the virus could not be eliminated, it could be suppressed, and the immune system could be restored. Current therapies are exceptionally effective, giving people living with HIV hope for long and healthy life. Therapy is so effective that, as long it is taken, the virus cannot be detected by routine lab tests, and, amazingly, the virus cannot be transmitted to others.

Further, there are medications that those who are HIV-negative (but at risk for acquiring HIV) can take to prevent becoming infected. Finally, we have the tools needed to end the HIV epidemic, and Nashville (among other major cities) has pledged to do so by achieving important aims by 2024: ensure that 90% of Nashville residents living with HIV know their status, decrease the number of new infections among Nashville residents by two-thirds and link 90% of those diagnosed to HIV care within one month of diagnosis.

Despite the incredible medications, care, and ambitions of the city, new HIV infections in Nashville (and the Southeast in general), have not declined, and many people still die from complications of advanced HIV/AIDS. The burden of infection disproportionally affects marginalized groups who may face insurmountable barriers to care, including poverty, substance use disorder, mental health diagnoses, and shame/stigma from their infection.

These barriers prevent them from receiving the care they need and prevent Nashville from achieving its goal of ending HIV. Another barrier to achieving this goal is simply the lack of awareness; Nashville residents are generally not aware that, since it moved away from the spotlight of need and urgency in the 1990s, HIV never really went away and continues to silently devastate our community.

I have recognized that providing world-class HIV care involves dismantling these barriers and involving our community to rekindle the awareness and activism needed to finally end this epidemic. I founded The Ruby Gala to do so. The Ruby Gala is the VCCC’s annual event to raise funds and awareness needed to support people with HIV to overcome barriers to receiving treatment, and to imprint sustainable HIV care onto our future through the recruitment and training of HIV practitioners.

Achieving these aims will continue to bring the Nashville community ever closer to ending the HIV epidemic. We embrace the diversity of the Nashville community and strive for inclusion among the guests; it’s crucial to the mission to involve Nashville residents of all sectors, backgrounds, and generations. As an intentional departure from the traditional Nashville gala, the Ruby Gala features approachable ticket price points to allow even more members of the Nashville community to experience the event.

Long-time icons of the Nashville formal event scene toast with guests attending their first one. At our December 2021 event, hosted by Marathon Music Works, guests enjoyed delicious fare by celebrity chef Maneet Chuahan, sipped signature cocktails created by beverage sponsors Lipman Brothers and Red Bull, and danced in the warm glow of the event’s spectacularly chic décor by Ron Sanford Productions.

The celebration continued to L27 Rooftop Lounge at Westin Nashville, which provided exclusive Ruby Gala access to its newly winterized Chalet 27 pop-up. The next Ruby Gala is scheduled for December 3, 2022 (save the date!).

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Definitely not! I am a physician, not an event planner.

Organizing a formal event from scratch on a physician’s schedule and without prior experience was a steep learning curve, but I found an incredibly dedicated team. The biggest roadblock to a live, formal event was of course COVID-19. For the safety of our guests, we had to reschedule our last event three separate times. In one instance, the delta variant appears so quickly that we rescheduled the event only three weeks before the planned date.

Amazingly, our venue, vendors, artists, and guests stuck with us and we executed an unforgettable (and safe) event last December. For many, it was the first in-person celebration in 2 years.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am an Infectious Diseases physician at Vanderbilt. Most of my work involves the care of patients living with HIV (especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has calmed down!).

I am still honored and beyond humbled to have been given the role of medical director of VCCC, following in the footsteps of its founder (and Nashville legend), Dr. Stephen Raffanti. VCCC serves over 3700 clients living with HIV in Middle Tennessee and is truly an amazing place, we provide not just HIV care, but a curated collection of services to holistically meet the needs of our clients.

We offer services including primary care, case management, social work, pharmacy, nutrition, dermatology, women’s health, obstetric care, psychiatry and counseling, and substance use disorder treatment. The needs of our clients continue to change, and so I am proud to build VCCC programs to meet these needs.

What are your plans for the future?
I think my biggest plan for the future is to watch the HIV epidemic end. As The Ruby Gala takes its place among the prominent formal events in Nashville, I hope for it to be the linchpin in ending the epidemic in Nashville.

It will only become bigger and more glorious with each year, giving a broader reach to our mission and allowing us to better meet the needs of people living with HIV throughout Middle Tennessee.

By involving the Nashville community, far beyond the medical sector, I hope for us all to see that ending HIV is absolutely within reach, and a worthy cause for us all to take action.


  • Ruby Gala tickets are $250
  • Sponsorships can be secured through the Ruby Gala website.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Sandy Campbell photography

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