I mentioned in passing in a recent blog the time I spent during the 1980s as a volunteer taking care of AIDS patients. A reader asked to know more about that time. Over the years I’ve told the story several times in this blog, but at the risk of repeating myself, here it is again:
In the middle of the 1980s, men were dying on the street of a disease called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), otherwise known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), because no one would go near them or touch them for fear of catching the disease—no one knew how it was transmitted, and it was fatal. I couldn’t tolerate the massive cruelty of leaving people to die alone uncared for. Unlike the vast majority of Americans, I had faced death often during my years of working with troops in combat. I told my wife that if I worked with AIDS patients, there was an unknown likelihood that I’d become infected. If I came down with AIDS, so would she. And the disease was fatal. She told me to go ahead.
I spent the next five years helping AIDS patents die. I worked with seven men, all gay, and all died. During that time, we learned that the disease was transmitted from person to person by the transfer of bodily fluid from an infected patient. The reason that most victims were gay men was that they transferred infected semen through anal intercourse. The closest I came to being in danger was that I once punctured myself with a hypodermic needle I had just used to inject a patient. After the required six weeks incubation period, I was tested and found to be free of the disease.
I knew nothing about the gay community when I first volunteered to help. I was the only straight volunteer at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. I came to understand that homosexuals were just people like everyone else. I loved every one of my patients, as if they were my sons or brothers. I knew nothing I could do would cure them. My job was to help them die peacefully, with minimum pain and maximum dignity.
My experience helping men die reaffirmed my belief that the most satisfying experience in life comes from helping others. And we must do unto others not as we would have done unto ourselves but as they wish to have done unto them.