My recent mention of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) reminded me of a time in my life, now long ago, when I volunteered to work with the dying. I told the story several years ago in this blog. It’s worth revisiting.
As my readers know, I came away from the Vietnam war with psychological damage called PTSI. I tried to banish my memories of death during combat to my unconscious, but they came back to haunt me in unbearable ways and brought with them panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and irrational rages. 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 was reading in the press of men abandoned on the street to die. They were suffering from an unknown disease called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a chronic, life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It came to be called the gay disease because nearly all its victims were homosexual. No one knew how the disease was transmitted, and people were afraid to go near AIDS patients, let alone touch them—a diagnosis of AIDS was a death warrant. The victims were left to die homeless and alone.
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 Vietnam, I could face this danger. I’d take every precaution—wear gloves, keep my body covered—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.