My post yesterday on volunteering as a way to cope with my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) brought questions from readers about what I did to help people dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). I’ve told the story here before, but it’s been a while. So here it is again.
In the early 1980s, I learned that when my attention was focused on others, my hideous memories of the battlefield, my PTSI, faded. At the same time, I was reading in the newspaper about men dying of AIDS alone on the street because no one would go near them or touch them—people were terrified that they might contract the disease if they had physical contact with its victims. I told my wife I couldn’t tolerate that situation and wanted to volunteer to help those men. I warned her that AIDS was fatal and that there was some chance I would be infected—back then, we didn’t know that the disease was transmitted through body fluids—and if I came down with the disease, she would, too. She told me to go ahead.
I spent the next five years volunteering to look after AIDS patients. Over those years, I cared for seven men dying of AIDS. I did everything for them, cleaning, cooking, bathing them, grocery shopping for them, taking them to gay bars, and being their companion. Then science discovered a way to prevent AIDS from killing its victims. So I switched to working with the homeless for a couple of years, then volunteered with Gilchrist hospice for about nine years. I spent so much time working with the dying because most people refused to volunteer for that kind of work. Most people (well, Americans anyway) want to avoid anything having to do with death. I had faced and witnessed death repeatedly on the battlefield and was not afraid to work with the dying.
I grew to love every one of my AIDS patients and grieved when they died. I have never regretted my decision to work with the dying. It is something I have been able to do that others cannot or will not do.
Once again, I am content.