During the five years from 1985 to 1990, I cared for seven AIDS patients as a volunteer buddy. All died. My team leader was diagnosed, came down with this disease, and died. By 1990, I was at the point that I couldn’t face yet another death.
Then medical science discovered ways, not of curing the disease, but of treating it so that someone infected could resume a more or less normal life. A diagnosis of AIDS was no longer a death warrant. We now knew how AIDS was transmitted—through the conduction of bodily fluids from an infected person into the body of another. People were no longer afraid to touch AIDS patients. More volunteers committed to helping patients. In effect, the crisis was over.
I moved on to volunteering for other causes. I worked with the homeless, the dying in a hospice, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital.
My experience with AIDS patients had several results. First, I learned that I could face the danger of infection, just as I had faced the dangers of combat. Once when I was injecting a patient, I accidently stuck myself with the needle after it had been in the patient’s body. I waited the six weeks required for the virus to take hold, then had a blood test. No infection. A second test after twelve weeks certified that I was free of the disease. I had faced a danger as potentially fatal as combat and had come through unscathed. I had confronted the possibility of my own demise calmly.
Second, I had loved every one of my patients and had grieved over each death. Despite that, I kept going back and taking on new patients. I could face the death of a patient head-on.
Third, I learned that my biases, mostly unconscious, about gay men were wrong. These men, both the patients and the caregivers, were strong, resilient, and compassionate. The buddies, as the volunteer caregivers were called, were willing to put their own lives on the line to help the stricken. The sick faced their deaths with quiet courage and peaceful resignation.
I volunteered to help AIDS patients in part because I couldn’t stand to watch men dying alone on the streets and in part to help me cope with my own Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The experience changed me. While acting as a buddy helped me deal with my own unbearable memories, it also inflicted its own psychic wound. Just as I had turned to writing to get me through my struggle with PTSI, I did the same to cope with the shock and grief of seeing so many AIDS patients die. The result was my novel, No-Accounts, the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS.
I am a better man for having been a buddy. And what I had learned resulted in a novel. The book was recognized last year by the Eric Hoffer Awards. It is my only novel not about Vietnam. Some readers tell me it is my best book.