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.
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."
Ruby revealed personal, intimate episodes 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 that 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.
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?"
Ruby has emerged from her misery as a vibrant, wholesome and healthy-looking person who is getting on with her life despite her lethal disease. She is 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, and there aren't too many people out there doing that."
Ruby said she has also 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 said.
Still, Ruby said she is deeply troubled by "guilt that is so thick" because she's passed the infection on to her baby. "I know I'll be making amends to my daughter for the rest of my life, and I will do that by being the best mother I can be."