His breathing was rapid and shallow; O2 in place, his eyes stared at the ceiling of the hospital room. He was a soldier in his late 20s, his once strong body now emaciated, a shell of its former self. His arms rested on top of the bedsheet, bluish nodular lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma landscaping them as they did the rest of his body. His lungs a “white-out” on X-ray as the unusual cancer spread relentlessly. It was 1985. He was dying of AIDS. They all died, every one of them, from this frightening and poorly understood disease. It was a terrible time.
I was in my internal medicine residency at Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, outside of Augusta. The AIDS epidemic was exploding, and the military was not immune. Eisenhower was the HIV referral center for all the Armed Forces, their families, and retirees for the Southeastern U.S., Europe, and Panama. By the end of my first year of training, I was caring for a medicine floor of 20 or more soldiers in varying stages of HIV/AIDS.
I was halfway through what was to be a 15-month stretch of inpatient care without a day off. Each week a 100-hour plus marathon of unceasing work intermixed with every 4th-night call, 36 to 40 hours of punishing sleeplessness. I was thankful it was only every 4th night. I was in “survival mode,” my own humanity replaced by a depersonalized self I did not recognize. Patients were no longer people to me; they were work, more work in a limitless sea of disease and death in which I frantically treaded.
Fear, prejudice, and ignorance, permeated the culture of the time. People were afraid to be in the same room with an infected individual, especially those in the last stages of the disease. Sons, husbands, and fathers, at times, abandoned by those they loved, never to see them again. They were all gay, these young men in the prime of their lives. They had simply kept it hidden from a society that could not accept who they were. Shame, embarrassment, and guilt further drove their families away as much as the fear of the virus.
No one came to see him with caring words or the warmth of love given through human touch. The only people to do so were the doctors and nurses. We battled our own fears and prejudices only to have them slowly erased as our hearts broke by what we witnessed. No longer did I see him as “more work.” I finally saw him as a human being in need of acknowledgment, affirmation, a non-judgmental look, and, most of all, a touch given with compassion, caring, and love. No one should experience what he did, no matter who they were, what they did, or what they believed. He deserved the same dignity we all do. The protective wall I had built around me came crumbling down, and my heart to appear again. The nurses and I loved on him until his breath became air. He was not alone.
It was a terrible time, a sad time. It was a time that changed me as a person, and I am forever grateful. I will always remember that young man from so long ago. He gave me back my humanity.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician.
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