Friday, May 23, 2008

A Quarter Past

My bout a couple of months ago with pneumonia was not my first encounter with that hacking misery. Twenty-five years ago, while in college, I took a beating from it as well. I was a theatre major at the University of Colorado and in the middle of rehearsals for a grueling production. The final week before opening I developed a fever, cough and exhaustion. I gave up going to classes and arose only at five in the afternoon for some broth before making my way to rehearsals. I got sicker and more feverish, but felt responsible to the rest of the cast as I was the lead and had no understudy.

By the time opening night arrived I was a disaster, but the show must go on. I asked a roommate to drive me to the campus hospital and see if they could give me some kind of B-12 shot to get me through it. I got to the emergency room and after an examination was informed I had pneumonia - I was very sick. I told them I knew that but could they give me anything for it. The doctor said they would start me on some antibiotics (in case it was bacterial) and get some fluids in me. They also thought some steroids and breathing treatment were in order. I asked how long that would all take because I had a call in less than an hour. The doc shook his head and said I no longer had any plans: he was admitting me to the hospital. I could expect to be there for a couple of days at least. Despite my objections he was firm. So the show was cancelled and I was admitted.

The hospital wasn't substantial. It was only twenty beds and was used for student illnesses. It had been there for years and though the staff was drawn from the medical school, the facility was old.

That night they wheeled me down to get some chest X-rays and while they set up the room parked me in my chair outside. I heard another wheelchair behind me and when I turned around there was another patient. Strangely enough, I knew him. A vocal music major, Scott and I had met at a number of social occasions as the theatre and music departments had a lot of crossover and often mingled at parties. As sick as we both were we laughed at the coincidence: we both had pneumonia. When she took me up to my room the nurse said it was a good thing Scott and I knew one another because we were the only patients in the hospital.

It turned out she was right it was a good thing - there were no televisions in the rooms. In between sleeping I got very bored so I wandered down the hall to Scott's room and we would chat. For the next couple of days we talked shop, gossiped, and bitched about teachers. They weren't long conversations; we both felt exhausted, but as sick as I was, he was worse.

On my third day there I woke up and tried to read, but couldn't stay focused so I slipped down to Scott's room. When I got there it was empty and the staff was cleaning it. I went to the nurse's station and asked where Scott was. She said he'd gotten worse over night and they had transfered him to Rose Medical Center in Denver. "Crap," was all I could muster. She offered me some more magazines. I took them under my arm and started back down the hall. As I passed his room I noticed how thorough they were in their cleaning. They were even scrubbing down the walls.

For the next two days I slept, had a few visitors and generally got better until my doc said he was sending me home. I was to stay in bed, however, for the week and not even try to attend classes. I did as I was told but after four days I felt well enough to take a shot. That morning, after I had related to my classmates the foolishness of suffering for one's art, I mentioned that Scott had been in the hospital with me. It got very quiet and they all looked at one another. Finally someone said that Scott had died three days earlier.

One month after Scott died, twenty-five years ago this week, on May 20, 1983, Luc Montagnier and a team at the Pasteur Institute published a paper in the journal Science that identified the virus which killed Scott. Since Scott's death an estimated 25 million more people have died from that virus worldwide. As many as 36 million people are currently infected.

Scott was by no means the first to die, but he was the first I knew. Since then I have known many more, some just acquaintances, some good friends. Mark was one of the latter, and he was my last mentor; my last teacher. A tall, handsome, hard-drinking native San Franciscan, Mark answered the phones where I worked. Older than I by a couple of years he dropped into my hands the lens through which I view all governments and social structures. I am forever grateful for his gifts to me of Debord and Vaneigem, usually left on my desk without notes or identifiers. His radical politics were kept close to the vest, but if you had his trust he would show you a delightfully subversive side of himself.

During the first Gulf War, as San Francisco became one giant protest march, Mark and some cohorts posted flyers all over town announcing Joe Montana would be a guest speaker at a huge rally scheduled for the Civic Center. It forced both the organizers and Montana to disavow their involvement. Mark felt that both sides participated in spectacle and not action, and that meant his job was to take them both to the edge. He was always the grinning monkey discretely disrupting things.

When he was diagnosed with AIDS it came as a blow. At the time the coctail was non-existent; the primary drug was AZT. He dreaded its side effects - the nausea, the headaches, the discolored nails - but most of all he dreaded the fact that he could not drink while he was on it. As his health declined he became more and more convinced of the futility of the struggle. He walked away from their meds and turned back to his own. He drank hard, and happily... for a while. The last time I saw him he had lost so much weight the wind practically blew through his bones. Sarcomas caused him pain and he was bitter. It so upset me to see how much of his bright and vibrant soul it had taken that I wept, and he rightly asked me to leave. He passed away several weeks later.

In the U.S. HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. The coctail has turned it into a chronic, but relatively manageable disease. As a result we see it as we do say, diabetes. But it's not. The coctail is beginning to fail and has detrimental long term health effects of its own. Worse yet, it is completely out of reach for the vast majority of people in the third world. Infections are on the upswing and half of the new infections are in women. An entire generation of orphans has been created by this disease and there is no end in sight.

We wore our ribbons for a while (as if that was going to do anything in the first place). We read about it and cared and saw Philadelphia. But we moved on to whatever new shiny caught our fancy or new annoyance stoked our fury. So now the quilt is falling apart with no place to store it and hormonal teens imagine they can fellate their way to safety.

25 years and it's still here. It didn't go away. Scott and Mark and 25 million others deserve better. 36 million expect more. It will get worse. It's only a quarter past.

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