I wrote yesterday about how I turned to helping others as a means of coping with my Post-Traumatic Stress from Vietnam.
But there was another reason I was drawn specifically to helping AIDS patients. When the epidemic first hit, the population was terrified of the disease. We didn’t know how it was transmitted. People, including health care professionals, were afraid to go anywhere near a person sick with AIDS. Landlords wouldn’t rent to them. Hospitals wouldn’t accept them. Some doctors and nurses refused treat them. The result was that there were literally men dying on the street because no one would take them in.
I watched what was happening, and I couldn’t tolerate it. I wanted to volunteer to take care of AIDS patients. I told my wife that there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, she would, too. She told me to go ahead.
For the next five years I was a buddy to AIDS patients. I did everything for them because they could do nothing for themselves. I fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them. I was often the only human being caring for them. They were abandoned except for me.
I came to love every one of them. And when they died, I grieved.
In five years, I went through seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died.
Just at the time when I decided I couldn’t face another death, medical science isolated the means of transmission—bodily fluids—and discovered medicines that ameliorated the conditions brought on by the disease to the point that the death rate began to decline. I ceased being a buddy. I worked for several years with the homeless, then spent seven years caring for the dying in the hospice system.
But my experiences with the men who died of AIDS changed my life and outlook. The result was the novel No-Accounts.