Buddy System Gives Patients With Aids Lifelong Friendships

September 14, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

They lived less than an hour apart, but they came from two separate worlds.

She's a bank executive in Annapolis, a polished 40-year-old who juggles a demanding career and social life.

He was a generation younger, a 27-year-old hair dresser with a quirky sense of humor who lived in Baltimore with his boyfriend. And he was dying of AIDS.

But as soon as they met, they just clicked. They went to movies and restaurants, took long walks and pigged out on peanut butter.

"I learned so much from Jeff. It was quite a gift for me to be part of his life," said Joyce Wearstler, who spent nearly a year as an aide and confidant to Jeff before he died of the fatal syndrome in May 1989.

Their paths might never have crossed if Wearstler had not been haunted daily by images of the AIDS epidemic. Every time the assistant vice president of Second National Federal Bank in Annapolis picked up a paper or switched on the television, she felt a pang.

"I decided I wanted to do something, anything I could to help these people," she said. "So often they're abandoned by all their loved ones in this crisis."

The only drawback to volunteering as a buddy with the Baltimore-based Health Education Resource Organization was the long drive from her Annapolis home.

"I could never just stop by for lunch," she said. "And when he got into a crisis, I'd have to drive like a bat out of hell to get there."

Spurred by a desire to volunteer closer to home, Wearstler suggested that the AIDS Coalition of Anne Arundel County start its own buddy system. The ad-hoc coalition of health professionals, social workers and support group leaders overwhelmingly backed her plan and arranged to train 15 volunteers through HERO's program in October.

The number of AIDS patients in the county has increased dramatically in the last couple of years, said Suzanne Ochs, HIV case manager with the county Health Department. When she was appointed last January to serve patients who tested positive for the AIDS virus, Ochs inherited 15 cases. She now has 50, about half of the 100 known AIDS patients in Anne Arundel County.

Since many victims are shunned by their families and friends, they often become lonely and depressed, she said. They also can become too weak for simple tasks like grocery shopping, because the disease cripples the immune system and they fall prey to sicknesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer.

"When I'm working with clients, what I'm struck by most is that people really need a friend," Ochs said. "They need somebody to talk to, somebody to play cards with, somebody to go grocery shopping with them."

Donna Edwards, a 42-year-old former college instructor from Towson who worked as a buddy and also volunteered at the AIDS ward in John Hopkins Hospital, agreed. She said most of the AIDS patients she knew felt increasingly isolated because frightened people would refuse to go near them.

"I talked a lot, I listened a lot, and I touched a lot," she said. "But I think I also learned a lot. What the AIDS patients have taught me is to love, a love that transcends the judgments and labels that we place on people."

Anne Arundel residents interested in becoming a buddy should either call Wearstler at 269-8064 or Megan Davis at 647-0477.

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