About a million years ago (or in the early 90's), I worked for a medical practice in Manhattan. The offices were on lower Fifth Avenue and the four physicians sharing the suite all practiced out of the now defunct St. Vincent's Hospital in the West Village. Three of the doctors were internal medicine guys, the other doctor was an independent (solo practice) Ob-Gyn. This unusual combination of specialities meant that at any given time our waiting room could potentially be filled with pregnant women, elderly couples, young women obtaining routine, gynecological care and sick men - lots and lots of really sick men.
As a single 20-something year-old woman, I obviously was aware of HIV and AIDs. I understood the need to protect myself, despite my heterosexuality. I practiced safe sex and had been tested more than once for HIV. What I didn't know, however, were any people who had AIDs. I mean, I heard of people who were sick, and I was aware of people I knew losing people (children, lovers, friends) to the plague, but I was not familiar with anyone I knew being HIV positive. Well, that was about to change...
During the year or so I worked in this position, I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand amazing medical care and attention. The doctors I worked for consistently exceeded any expectation I had for what defined quality medical care - they worked seemingly tirelessly for the health of their patients and I was forever spoiled because I truly believed that all doctors exerted the same efforts which I observed from my employers. From doing rounds in the early morning, to seeing patients for 8 or 10 hours, to late nights reviewing charts and medications and T cell counts, these guys were warriors. And I learned how to help take care of terminally ill people because, make no mistake, that's what they were in those days. There were no "drug cocktails" yet, and despite the candle lit vigils and marches, things were very, very dark.
At the beginning, I was afraid. I was uncertain if the latex gloves would provide sufficient protection from the test tubes of blood I was "spinning" prior to lab pick-up. I was very cautious about changing the paper on the exam room tables and probably went out of my way to avoid physical contact - a touch, a handshake, a hug, until I came to know our patients as more than a diagnosis. A few of those men will always live in a small place in my heart, like Franklin, from Albany, Georgia who wanted to know if it was okay to smoke a little pot because it made him feel better. Or the man with the cool name who worked in the film industry, and whose name will always make me smile when I see the credits roll at the end of many pre-1992 Woody Allen movies. And the couple who took such amazing care of each other during that year - no married straight couple could ever surpass the love and tenderness they shared with one another. Artists, fashion industry professionals, businessmen, teachers, students - all killed by a disease which does not discriminate.
So, today, on World AIDs Day - I will think of the talent, the light, and the potential, lost to a disease. I will think of the human beings taken away, T-cell by T-cell, so many years ago and silently whisper "I remember you. I won't ever forget you." How about if you take a moment to do the same? Or, if you have the time, make your way to the Empire State Plaza and view the Names Project quilt while it remains on display. Please tell Franklin I said hello.