The Hospital was Surrounded by News media by Alan Yount
The hospital was surrounded by news media, besieged by sound trucks with their antennae pointed to the black sky. I had hoped to sneak in, returning to work after a three-week absence, anonymous and unnoticed. Now, I had to thread my way through the outer ring of trucks and past the reporters, tethered to them within the safety of the circle.
Of course, they ignored me. I was just another hospital employee coming to work on the graveyard shift. If they had bothered to look, they might have wondered what had happened to me – something didn’t look right about me. That is, at least, how I felt. I had lost almost 30 pounds in those three weeks, and my face was still raw. My uniform – scrub shirt and white pants – hung off of me.
I entered through the emergency room, leaving behind the army of reporters and their trucks; leaving their bright lights for the fluorescents of the hospital. I was thankful that no one I knew seemed to be on duty in the ER; thankful that I recognized no one in the staff room where I dutifully punched my time card, left, and took the steps to the fifth floor. My floor, the cardiology unit. This is where the recognition would come.
As I came through the double doors, another nurse turned to look, anxious for her shift to end and hand over her patients to the night shift. She didn’t really care what the night shift nurses looked like, as long as they were ready to take responsibility for her seven or eight patients. And, so, she nodded a greeting to me, paying no attention to my appearance.
The next nurse to see me – another “male” nurse (I always chuckled at that appellation – male nurse – as if it described the type of nursing, not the nurse, like cardiology nurse or pediatric nurse or OR nurse. “Oh yes, I’m a male nurse; I only work on males.”) – did, however, gasp when he saw me. Like me – like any gay man in Atlanta in 1984 – he would be keenly aware of THE LOOK. Emaciated and scarred. THE AIDS LOOK.
I had first been introduced to THE AIDS LOOK while still in nursing school at the University of North Carolina, although the term, AIDS, had not yet been coined. While researching a paper for a class called the Health of Populations (HOPs), I had come across an article about the “gay illness” striking gay men in New York City. I had chosen gay men as my population to study. I was, after all, one of seven men in a nursing program with over 300 students. I felt it would be “safe” to choose a population I actually cared about; a population I knew a little about from my own experience. I had my own experiences as a gay man to draw upon. I, myself, had been called by the county health department after being reported as a “contact” from someone with syphilis. I had dutifully reported to the Student Health Center, to the knowledgeable and sympathetic physician; a physician who worked with gay men. While it turned out that I did not have syphilis, I did now have a knowledgeable and sympathetic physician who knew that I was gay and would attend to the unique health needs of a gay man – a sore throat would require swabbing for gonorrhea, not simply looking for strep or some other run-of-the-mill cause. It only seemed fitting that I should honor this relationship by looking at the specific health needs of gay men for my HOPs research paper. And, there they were, the panoply of gay-related needs, all of them venereal in nature. I was even pleasantly surprised to find out how much research had been done on my own health needs – journal articles and studies, all about gay men and their needs. I noted, perhaps with a tinge of superiority, that there was little research done on the health needs of lesbians. Most articles assumed that they had no special needs! While looking through the latest updates and abstracts for health journals, I found a reference to a recent New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The year was 1981. I noted it in my paper, in a short paragraph without much concern, concluded the paper, and handed it in.
I didn’t realize how close I would come to this new gay disease. None of us did. By the time I graduated in 1984 with my nursing degree from Carolina, several of my friends – and boyfriends – would be sick or dead of the disease. The first man I had slept with at Carolina, Hoagie Gaskins, would get sick, be hospitalized, and die while I was rotating through the wards at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. I would visit him while he was in the hospital, although he would not recognize me.
“Hi,” I tried to sound casual with the evening shift male nurse. “I had the chicken pox. It’s always worse for an adult. At least, that’s what they told me, and I believe them! What’s with all the cameras outside? I’m not exactly ready for my close-up.”
“Daddy King died this evening,” the other nurse responded, happy not to have to ask the questions.
Ah yes, Daddy King. Marin Luther King Junior’s father. Martin Luther King Senior. He had come to the cardiology unit during the week before I had gotten sick. I wanted to like him, to feel like I was working with a little bit of American history, but . . . he had been an unpleasant patient, demanding. Nothing we, the nurses, did was right, and he had hired private duty nurses for the night shift. I hadn’t liked him. And, I felt a little guilty about it. Now, at the end, he had died, summoning news reporters to witness my sickly return to work. I still didn’t like him.
I moved on through the hallways of the unit, passing evening nurses ready to end their shift and night nurses, like me, about to begin. These nurses knew me. They knew what I looked like – used to look like – and each one registered her surprise followed by a quick attempt to recover. Yes, I looked bad – a dermatologist whose services I would seek out in the coming weeks told me that there was nothing they could do for the severe scaring of my face for at least year, possibly two.
Like my fellow nurses, I, too, was scared. In the next week I would seek out the advice of Atlanta’s preeminent AIDS physician of the time.
“Do I have AIDS?” I asked the doctor.
“I can’t tell you for certain right now. Did you have the chicken pox as a child?” he probed. It turned out that a reactivation of a childhood illnesses was, at the time, an indication of the disease. There was no AIDS test in 1984 – it wouldn’t come on the scene until 1985. This required doctors to make their diagnosis of AIDS based on “indications” of the disease – an impaired immune system in an otherwise healthy person was the primary indication. A reactivation of a childhood disease would indicate such an impaired immune system – and my mother couldn’t recall with certainty whether I had had chicken pox as a child or not.
“We can test your T Cells and see if they’re abnormal,” he offered.
I would decline at the time. I had already decided that I had AIDS and that there was nothing to be done for me. I had made the decision to get away before I got sick, but I had not yet made that decision on my first night back at work, although that first night was instrumental in my decision-making.
As we all got used to me and what I looked like, I began my shift. I listened to the report taped by the evening shift and began rounds on my patients – all cardiology patients until later in the shift. The Emergency Room called in the middle of the shift with an admission – an AIDS patient with cardiology complications. I volunteered to take him. He was brought upstairs by a team of orderlies in biohazard suits. He was placed on “strict isolation” – we all had to don biohazard suits and masks to enter his room, discarding them in a biohazard container at the door to his room. All reusable materials used in his care – sheets, towels, washcloths, blood pressure cuffs – had to remain in the room or be placed into bright red bags marked “BIOHAZARD” and be sterilized before being put back into use. All disposable materials – dressings, gloves, masks – had to be placed into bags also marked “BIOHAZARD” to be disposed of separately from all other trash on the unit.
He looked like hell – worse than me – emaciated with open weeping sores, Kaposi Sarcoma, and severe pneumonia, Pnuemocystis carnii pneumonia. I don’t recall what his cardiology complications were, but that he would have some cardiology problems was no surprise.
Is this what is going to happen to me? I worried. At some point during that night shift I decided that I had to leave – I either already had AIDS and would die a very ugly death, or, somehow, I didn’t have it, and I needed to get out of town – out of the country – to avoid that fate.
My plan took shape over the next several weeks, as I continued to work the night shift – watching our AIDS patient die that very ugly death that I feared – and made my rounds to the dermatologist and infectious disease – AIDS – doctor. I would join the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps would send me overseas. If I didn’t have a healthy immune system, I would die quickly. If I had a healthy immune system, I would be safely out of harm’s way for two years – long enough for my face to heal enough to be sanded down by the dermatologist.