Nurses hear stories of AIDS Forum promotes more understanding and sensitivity.

October 14, 1991|By Sue Miller | Sue Miller,Evening Sun Staff

Ross, a 30-year old homosexual living with AIDS-causing HIV virus, came from a family in Towson, where people think, "This can't happen to me." And he didn't think it could.

But he started drinking alcohol when he was eight. At 19, he had become a professional dancer and that, he said, exposed him to drugs. Alcohol, however, was what he liked best of all.

"If I didn't black out, I didn't have a good time," he told 80 strangers attending the Greater Baltimore Nurses Forum on AIDS. "I had no morals, no scruples, I woke up with people whose names I didn't know."

On New Year's Eve the year Ross was 23, he was diagnosed as being HIV positive.

Ruby, a 34-year old recovering addict, has been HIV-infected for 4 1/2 years and has a 3-year old-daughter who is "up and down" with the same infection. Ruby said she grew up in the inner city with no one to talk to and share her feelings.

Her mother was an alcoholic and her father a workaholic. No matter what Ruby did, she said, it was never good enough for her mother, who would taunt her with, "You will never be anything."

And so, Ruby told the AIDS forum at the University Club recently, "I set out to be nothing. I fell in love with cocaine because then I could be the person I wanted to be. I was even shooting dope in my forehead -- that's how obsessed I became. I fell in the gutter, and I stayed in the gutter and I was comfortable with that."

Ross and Ruby revealed personal, intimate episodes as openly as though they were talking to a best friend while a group of nurses listened raptly. The nurses were trying to gain a better understanding of and sensitivity to a disease that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, most in the prime of their lives.

"There are lots of things about this disease that nurses are not familiar with," said Sylvia Scherr, administrator of the Maryland AIDS Professional Education Center, who organized the forum with Andrew Lentz, formerly of the AIDS support group HERO.

"I think what complicates this disease is that like all the epidemics of past eons, people's emotions became inflamed and a lot of fear, prejudice or incomplete knowledge kind of got in the way of their being able to move forward in their learning and patient care," Scherr added.

"This disease primarily affects young people and that hits us hard. It also brings up a lot of our own very intimate feelings about sexuality, moral behavior, ethical standards and confused feelings and thoughts they we may not have clarified for ourselves."

Scherr said that when people have a chance to talk about their concerns in an open forum, it's easier to separate irrational fears and thoughts from fact.

Still, the HIV victims had sobering testimony for the nurses.

At one point, Ross said, instead of going in to a psychiatric ward, he consumed enough alcohol to be considered a potential suicide. He ended up at Spring Grove State Hospital but later got a bed at the Phipps Clinic at Hopkins.

"At Phipps they thought my complaints of headaches and chest pains were fictitious, that I blew things out of proportion," he said. "But, they found that I was not making things up, that I had muscular dystrophy and would have problems later because it runs in the family.

"They said I'd be in a wheelchair by Christmas -- that was two years ago. I've never been in a wheelchair. I've learned that I can't trust my doctor -- he's too busy to read up on everything."

When Ruby first learned she was HIV positive, she was devastated.

"All I could see, think and hear was death," she recalled. "It took three tests to convince me. Then, I asked for an abortion and they said I was too far gone. My intention was to kill this baby.

"The first person I told was my mother. She was very, very supportive and continues to be. She called HERO and then she called upon God to help me. I cursed God. How could there be a God who would let this happen to me?"

Do Ross and Ruby tell their sexual partners they are HIV-infected?

"When I was dating people, I felt I had to tell them," Ross told the group. "Very, very rarely was I rejected. Now I'm in a monogamous relationship with someone who is negative."

Ruby doesn't tell them anything, she said. "I met a nice guy once. I told him I was HIV positive and he just left. As long as we're using a condom, I don't think I have to tell them anything."

Ross and Ruby have emerged from their misery as vibrant, wholesome and healthy-looking people who are getting on with their lives despite their lethal disease. Both are taking AZT, an anti-AIDS drug.

"I want to say one thing about love -- you have to offer it to people like us," said Ruby. "It's just as important as our medicine."

Ruby said she has concluded that the AIDS virus is the best thing that could have happened to her. "It's allowed me to be a better person and to be a lady when I had intended to be a drug addict all my life," she aid. "Sitting in this chair in this room, looking like I do today -- it's beyond my wildest dreams."

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