Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Age of AIDS

I hope that some of you can watch the new Frontline special, The Age of AIDS on PBS tonight. I plan to watch it, especially in the knowledge that this is the 25-year anniversary of the beginning of the epidemic. FYI, it is actually a two-night special, and will certainly be repeated.

When I was a young art student in Philadelphia in the early 1980's, I came to personally know a number of gay men who began to exhibit symptoms of massive weight loss, strange pneumonia-like infections, and purplish splotches on their faces and arms. The idea of a "gay cancer" attacking the male homosexual community gained ground quickly in those early years, and due to my connection to the arts community and its large gay subculture, I was witness to the beginnings of the devastation that was to follow.

Looking back, I clearly remember a gay acquaintance of mine---a fellow painter---who made it very clear that he wanted me to be his lover. Never having had romantic feelings for men, I politely rejected his ardor, and our acquaintance never amounted to much, although we had a few mutual friends and would see one another at various art openings around the city. Several years later, before I left Philadelphia, he died a miserable death, riddled with Kaposi's Sarcoma and pneumonia, apparently having wasted away to a mere shadow of his former robust self. It's only now that I realize how profoundly life-altering a choice it would have been if I had entertained his offer of companionship. At that time, heterosexual infection was still relatively unrecognized, and although I had dodged an enormous bullet, the risks for young adults in the early and mid-80's would only grow.

A few years later, as a newly-trained massage therapist, I leapt at the opportunity to volunteer my services at a free holistic AIDS clinic in a relatively small New England city hit hard by the epidemic. Both gay men and IV drug users were affected most profoundly, although it was mostly only the gay men who flocked to the clinic for free medical advice, acupuncture, massage, support groups, and a place to feel at home. With my wife as a counselor, we both subsumed ourselves in this community which embraced everyone who walked through its doors. Free of the professional boundaries of a medical practice, we partied together, had meals together, raised money, created friendships, and developed a small network of interconnected lives who all worked tirelessly to improve (and possibly prolong) the lives of our affected brethren. Men dominated the clientele, but there were women as well, and the mix was enlivening and exciting. We were part of something great. I remember dinners, healing sessions, fund-raisers, Halloween parties with over-the-top drag shows, and funerals galore. Funerals. Memorial services. And more funerals. And more. Mary and I practiced Reiki on one of our dear friends as he lay on his deathbed. This kind soul, who had been at the top of his game in the publishing world in New York City, who would hum show tunes as I massaged his slowly wasting frame, died in the middle of the night with his beloved sister holding his hand, people chanting and praying around his bed. We were not there for his death, having gone home to tuck in our young son in the big haunted house where we lived at the top of the hill.

Now, in my current professional role as a nurse, clearly deeply affected by my earlier life experiences, I still marvel at the insidiousness of the virus, its ability to mutate and gain resistance to powerful medications, and its clear agenda to infiltrate every walk of life, nationality, race, and religion. What was once "the gay cancer" has become the most lethal epidemic in memory, and its grip on Africa and Asia tightens like a noose with each passing year. While I may not work exclusively with patients with HIV or AIDS, I currently carry fifteen people on my caseload who are infected, and have probably lost half a dozen in the last five years. For every victory, there's a dismal failure. For every stellar patient who takes his or her meds like a champion, another can't seem to stay focused long enough to follow through. The city where I work has been violently attacked by the virus, and politicians' fears of a needle exchange program have furthered the epidemic by tacitly allowing dirty syringes to pass from hand to hand.

As a Baccalaureate nursing student several years ago, I and a few classmates wandered the back streets of another devastated town under the guidance of a heroin addict in recovery, visiting the places where junkies shoot up, handing out condoms and bleach kits, preaching the gospel of clean needles and safe sex. Much to our professors' dismay, we held a health-fair at a local drop-in center for IV drug users, teaching them clean injection technique, how to sterilize needles, skills which could prevent infection with HIV, not to mention dangerous abscesses of the arm from poor injection technique. It's called harm reduction, and we did it well, if not a little clumsily. Did we save lives? No one can say. But one piece of information can go a long way, and I like to think that the effects of our work may live on in some child somewhere, whose parent used those techniques to avoid infection and thus give birth to an uninfected child. How I hope that that may be the case.

So, my friends, take a moment to acknowledge this anniversary, whether you have known someone infected with the virus or not, whether you work with infected individuals or not, whether your family has been touched or not. It is a passage in human history worth pausing for, and a time for even a brief reflection at this historic time.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering.
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