Lost Innocence

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This is another story of mine that was published in this summer’s RFD Magazine

I came of age in the “Age of AIDS,” coming out at 17 in the idyllic, innocent, pre-AIDS year of 1978. AIDS took all that innocence away. I lost all faith and ran away, joining the Peace Corps in 1985, hoping to escape the plague—the war being waged on my people. But . . . no matter where you go, there you are.

Like so many other gay men of that time, I first learned of the disease that would later be named AIDS from the New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”  The year was 1981, and I was a nursing student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I came across the article while researching a paper for my Health of Populations class. 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 easier to choose a population I actually cared about; a population I knew a little about from my own experience. After all, 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. For example, 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. I was 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.  It was while looking through the latest updates and abstracts for health journals, I found the Times article. 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, several of my friends—and boyfriends—would be sick or dead of the disease. The first man I slept with at Carolina 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.

Later that year, while I was working as a cardiology nurse in Atlanta, I came down with the chicken pox. I would miss 3 weeks of work, lose some thirty pounds, and be scarred from head to toe, but especially on my face.

More than scarred, I was scared. There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year. A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections”—unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised. These infections had their own ominous-sounding names—a Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus—that came with their own shorthand—KS, PCP, CMV.

Another so-called opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to. I didn’t remember if I had had chicken pox as a child, and I feared that I had already developed AIDS.

My first night back at work, I was confronted with the fate that awaited me, if I did indeed have the virus. 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, gowns—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, emaciated with the open weeping sores of KS, and severe PCP.  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. 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. A little less than a year later, I was accepted and given my assignment—Guatemala. I left in June of 1985.

Of course, I couldn’t escape AIDS. It followed me there. It seemed to taunt me. In my work as a volunteer, I collaborated with the United States Agency for International Development—US AID—and the Canadian International Development Organization—CIDA, pronounced sida, the same as AIDS in Spanish.

It haunted me. The nights were dark. Darker than any I had experienced back home. The electricity went out around 8:00pm in my village, and I would be plunged into complete darkness. Something lived between the ceiling of my room and the tin roof overhead; it’s pacing a monotonous track, like my thought. We were given the international edition of Newsweek, with newsprint paper instead of the slick paper of the U.S. edition. I would read about AIDS by lantern light at night, learning that Rock Hudson had died. From AIDS. I would turn the lantern off, close my eyes, and try to go to sleep.

The Peace Corps did, at least, teach me to face my fears. I returned to the United States in 1987. I went to Washington, DC, and got a job at George Washington University Hospital, working with AIDS patients.

The AIDS Quilt came to DC while I was there, in 1987 and 1988. I visited the quilt in 1988—8,288 panels. Eight thousand two hundred eighty-eight lives. It was six years after last seeing the first man I dated at Chapel Hill, dying in his hospital room. I wondered if anyone had made a panel for him. I had to search my memory for his name—Hogie Gaskins. Then, I searched the Quilt. He was there.

It’s been 32 years now, and I still put flowers in church at Easter for Hogie. I only lost my innocence. He lost his life.

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4 thoughts on “Lost Innocence

  1. Lynn

    Alan, This is by far the best writing I have seen of all the articles you have sent me or posted on fb. It’s close to your heart and I think that’s why. It took me back to that same period of time in the Village when gay men, who were dear friends died and I couldn’t understand what this “virus that affects homosexual men” was all about. The first one, was a neighbor. A really vibrant, funny and dear person. He went into the hospital with “pneumonia” and the next thing I knew his parents were cleaning out the apartment and taking him home. I never heard from or of him again. I found out much later he had died and then, in hindsight I realized it was probably pneumocystis. Everything was so secretive and scary. What a frightening time for you and the story conveys it so well. Don’t stop writing. You have so much to say and give in your stories. God bless you. You are an amazing person.

    Love, Lynn

  2. Mike Bento

    I have mixed feelings about this piece. One the one hand, its beautifully evocative writing that exactly captures a moment in time that I know all too well. On the other hand, it exactly captures a moment in time that I know all too well, and I want to resist being dragged back to. I found myself a couple of weeks ago trying to convey what it was like to a 23 year old. He looked at me like I was some demented survivor of shell shock. He was right.

    Keep writing my friend. I love you.

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