Guest Post: How the AIDS Crisis Taught Me an Enlarged Vision of Family
December 1st is the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day with the theme to “Know Your HIV Status.” I saw an internet thumbnail pop up of Prince Harry having an HIV test, supporting this cause. His mom would be proud. Princess Diana was an HIV/AIDS advocate, visiting and embracing those experiencing this illness.
I graduated from college/nursing school in 1983 and immediately went into oncology. I remember a day in 1984 when I was floated (sent to a nursing unit where one normally doesn’t work) to the Infectious Disease unit and assigned to care for a young person in isolation with a rare disease. I was afraid. In 1985, the unit I worked on enlarged its focus from strictly oncology to include adults with AIDS and AIDS-related complex (ARC). This was before the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) had been isolated. This was simultaneously my first introduction to gay men. Up until then I had no friends who were gay, or at least I didn’t know they were gay, if they were gay. I had lived a fairly sheltered life.
In the 90s I worked in a Pediatric Oncology Clinic. The physician-director was a forward-thinking leader who expanded the clinic to include children with HIV/AIDS. Back then the field of HIV/AIDS didn’t have its own specialists, or at least not very many. Under this leader’s direction our clinic was instrumental in conducting many clinical trials that led to drug approval and successful treatment of children with HIV/AIDS.
What I remember most from those years in pediatrics was the children and their families. The majority of these children contracted HIV from their mothers and some from blood transfusions.
What I saw in that clinic redefined what family is and can be. I saw mothers who were sick, caring for their children who were sick. I saw aunts who were raising their deceased sister’s children, bringing them to their clinic appointments. I saw fathers caring for their children after their wife had died. I saw grandmothers in their 50s, 60s and 70s raising their grandchildren after their own children had died. I saw many, many foster parents, many of whom were gay couples, fostering and/or adopting these children, giving them a home, giving them love and providing care. It was a beautiful place of service and love amidst the constant grief.
I saw strange and unbelievable things. I saw strength and reserve. I saw courage and fear. I saw despair and hope. Most of all I saw love for our fellow human beings, especially our children. In the early years of this epidemic I was afraid of things I didn’t understand and had no experience with, both medically and socially. I am so grateful for the experience and opportunity to know these wonderful people who taught me an enlarged vision of family.
Maureen is a nurse.