AIDS Awareness Day: tales of bravery, compassion

December 07, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Every day, a young man faithfully visited his brother, an AIDS patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He dealt with the stress of AIDS alone and never revealed his brother's fatal illness to any co-worker.

When he saw his boss in the waiting room, he went to the nurses' station in a panic.

"What if she sees me?" he asked Kevin Mallison, a clinical nurse on Osler 8, the AIDS unit. "She'll know I know someone with AIDS."

"I told him he needed to talk to his boss," said Mr. Mallison. "Her son was dying of AIDS, too."

He smiled gently as he told the story to a roomful of listeners during Carroll County's first AIDS Awareness Day at Carroll Community College Saturday.

While society grapples with the stigma attached to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Mr. Mallison and other health care workers are dealing with "just another awful disease that kills people."

"Our patients are all human beings who are now very ill," he said.

AIDS Awareness Day, which drew about 50 participants, included workshops on education, prevention and informed response to AIDS. Mr. Mallison called the event a way to break down the "cone of silence" that surrounds a fatal disease that is insinuating itself into all levels of society.

"I know there are people out there with AIDS, and I want to help," he said.

He and co-worker Lynn Sussman-Orenstein shared many other stories of patients, male and female, whose ages ranged from 17 to 71.

"We have met wonderful people and seen the greatest bravery," said Mr. Mallison.

"We have known many of our patients for years and learn a lot from them," said Ms. Sussman-Orenstein, a Hampstead resident who has worked on the unit for five years. "They are heroes for us. They become our friends, friends we lose to this disease."

The nurses set up an exhibit of patients' writings and art work.

"These things help remind our patients they are still alive," said Ms. Sussman-Orenstein. "It helps us remember those who are not."

The most difficult aspect, she said, is watching the debilitation as the body's immune system breaks down.

"The sadness on our floor is watching the disability," she said. "We help our patients recognize this is a tough time, and we try to normalize things for them," she said.

"You don't grow calluses over your emotions; you cry with these people," said Mr. Mallison. "You are there to help patients enjoy ,, what is left of their lives and resolve the rest of their lives."

Paulette Fernekees, who has been a foster mother to AIDS-infected children, said people need to "open up" about the disease and help each other.

"We might not be infected by this disease, but we will all be affected by it," she said.

Linda Stromberg, the county's only AIDS caseworker, predicted that within several years, everyone will know someone who has succumbed to AIDS. She gave a workshop on education and prevention.

Also during the seminar, a clerical panel explored Christian responses to AIDS, and several parents who have lost children to the disease spoke of coping with grief.

"If we become more aware, we may become more compassionate," said Sylvia Schneider, whose son died two years ago on the AIDS unit at Johns Hopkins. "Programs like this help. Unfortunately, they don't always draw the ones who should be here."

She and her husband volunteer at Osler 8 as a way "to give back something for the kindness shown to our son." She also encourages awareness programs and stresses the need to educate teens.

"We must continue to encourage awareness," said Mrs. Schneider. "This disease is everywhere."

The Carroll County AIDS Crisis Support Team, which sponsored the event, also showed "Teen AIDS in Focus," a film rejected by the county Board of Education, and "We Care," which is shown in county schools. After viewing both, Paul Meyers, a student at the community college, said the rejected film would show teens that AIDS can happen to them.

"The film they are using now communicates nothing of interest to teens," he said. "It only reinforces the idea that this is someone else's disease."

The afternoon concluded with a performance by Fool Proof, a student troupe that acts out youth issues.

With red ribbons for AIDS awareness pinned to their maroon sweat shirts, eight members of the group presented AIDS themes in their skits.

Following the performance, the students remained in character while the audience quizzed them.

"Did you use a condom?" Ms. Stromberg asked a young man whose character had seduced a girl he met at a "typical teen party scene."

"No," said the character. "AIDS -- it couldn't happen to me."

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