Reliving the Panic

The method of transmission is different, but this pandemic is bringing me back to the days of being a bedside nurse in the early 80s during our introduction to the AIDS crisis. I recall attending emergency conferences at Beekman Downtown Hospital for a new phenomenon called GRID that stood for Gay-related immune deficiency. It was called that incorrectly. We eventually found out that we could all be diagnosed with this disease. A nun was one of the earliest cases. We, as nurses, put one and one together and realized that any of the patients diagnosed with FUO, fever of unknown origin, could indeed be carriers of the disorder that became known as AIDS, Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome.

My son was preschool age, my daughter a year old in 1982. I went to work daily and masked, gloved, and garbed myself in isolation gowns during that hot summer and for years thereafter. I removed my uniform as soon as I returned home after my twelve-hour shifts. I didn’t want to spread the infection I was sure I had also contracted. I was fearful. Just before we had been conferenced on adhering to strict isolation protocols, I admit that I didn’t wear gloves for the first few years of Nursing. It seems ludicrous now, but that’s how it was many years ago. A friend shared how they used to scour the surgical instruments in a large sink, gloveless. The water became blood red as the nurses prepared them for autoclaving. We were not careful but many of us were spared.

I haven’t written about those days. Those times are chapters that have remained hidden in the desk drawer of my mind. I haven’t been struck by poetry describing the terror of the dying.

The beautiful young men.

The beautiful young men who died.

The beautiful young men who remain in my memory.

Sometimes I hear a glimpse of poetic verse and I turn away. I haven’t emotionally readied to deal with them. I didn’t talk about them in my therapy sessions. I’ve told no one about my afternoons changing bloodied and dirtied linen, washing young skin, some flawless and some filled with Kaposi Sarcoma lesions. I’ve told no one about knocking on apartment doors and no one answering. I’ve told no one about bawling in the isolation of my car where no one could see. I’ve told no one of the haunted eyes of mothers and fathers who knew they were dying as they fed their children lunch.

I believe this pandemic has opened that part of my heart that held those days like a clenched fist. I’m slowly allowing the blood in my heart to fully circulate through my being. I may begin jotting short stories about Richard, Kenny, and Roberto. I may write a line or two or maybe a haiku.

This is one thing that I’m thankful for in this time of dread. My heart has once again been struck deeply with love.

We’ll see each other on the other side.


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