My Time as an AIDS Volunteer

Something I said recently in one of my posts brought a question from a reader: what was my connection to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s? To answer the question, I resurrected a post from some years ago. Here it is, revised and updated.

First of all AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Until the late 1980s when we learned how to treat the disease, AIDS was invariably fatal. For reasons we didn’t understand, it hit gay men more than any other group.

When the AIDS epidemic first hit in the early 1980s, the U.S population as a whole 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. Doctors and nurses wouldn’t treat them. The result was that men were literally dying on the street because no one would take them in.

I watched what was happening, and I couldn’t tolerate it. I had faced death on the battlefield in Vietnam and knew I could do it again. I decided 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 in a program run by the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a gay men’s health and wellness center operating in Washington, D.C. I did everything for my patients 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.

More tomorrow.

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