During the five years from 1985 to 1990, I cared for seven AIDS patients as a volunteer buddy. All were gay, 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 it was no longer fatal and someone infected could resume a more or less normal life. A diagnosis, in other words, 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, with sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital, and with the dying in a hospice—more about that anon.
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 virus. 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.