As noted earlier in this blog, I turned to helping others as a way of facing down my bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I found that when I was working with people who desperately needed my help, my hideous memories faded into the background. I worked in a VA hospital with sick and dying veterans, helped the homeless, ministered to the dying in a hospice for seven years. But I started with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) patients. I worked with them for five years. I had seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died.
I volunteered to help these men when the AIDS crisis was at its peak in 1985. Back then, we knew of no cure or even life-extending therapies for AIDS. A diagnosis meant death. We didn’t know how the disease was spread. People were terrified of this gruesome malady. They avoided the infected. Men were left to die on the street because no one would go near them, let alone touch them.
By 1984, I had learned that if I banished my memories of combat and the fall of Saigon to my unconscious, they came back to haunt me in unbearable ways. My sole salvation in my struggle against PTSI was to face my memories head-on and learn to live with them. It was working, but it wasn’t enough. Some instinct in my soul pointed me towards helping others as a way to put my memories to rest.
At the same time, I read of men abandoned on the street to die. I couldn’t tolerate such cruelty. But maybe touching these men would cause me to contract the disease. I reasoned that if I was willing to put my life on the line to save the men fighting next to me in combat or to get my subordinates in Saigon safely out of the country, I could face this danger. I’d take every precaution, but I’d do my best to help these dying men.
I talked through the dangers with my wife. I told her that if I contracted AIDS, she would, too. She urged me to go ahead.
I volunteered at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a health facility specifically established to help the gay community. I was immediately assigned a patient. My job was to take care of him in any way he needed. I cooked for him, fed him, bathed him, dressed him, even gave him injections. I used every safety device possible. I wore plastic gloves, showered before and after each time with him, washed my hands repeatedly. A few months later, he died. I wept at his funeral. I had grown to love him.
A medical check verified that I was free of the disease. The clinic assigned me another patient. My journey through the world of AIDS had begun.