I’ll be posting short blogs about the birthing of Deadly Little Secrets, my novel set during the AIDS pandemic’s early years. People have asked me often, why the interest? This series of blogs should answer that question.
Soon after moving to Orange County, California from Chicago, Illinois in 1980, I began working as a charge nurse on a locked psych unit in South Orange County. Though I had taught at a major medical center in Chicago, until we moved to California, I had no knowledge of this mysterious virus showing up in gay men. Once I took that job, that’s when this virus got real. We began calling it G.R.I.D., gay related immune disorder, because at that point, our knowledge about transmission pointed to the sexual practices of homosexual men. Or so we thought.
It was a warm summer night that I recall meeting my first high risk patient. He was young and I could see he was handsome even underneath layers of grime that covered most of his body. We didn’t know what he was on and he was too disoriented to offer much. I remember he had great medical insurance, which surprised me given his ‘profile.’
Back then, this facility I worked at in south Orange County was the ‘go-to’ psych unit for many high profile public figures who needed a place to de-tox quietly and without interference of the law. Some may not know this, but before M.A.D.D. was established, drug addicts and alcoholics often preferred admitting themselves to in-patient psych facilities. It beat jail.
Whatever this young man’s drug of choice was had left track marks all over his body. His arms, his toes, all the places addicts shoot. He was gay. He told us that, too. He didn’t tell us that his great grandfather was an iconic figure in American history or that one of NYC’s tallest buildings bore his family name.
As the RN in charge that night, I was the one who prepared his syringe of medication ordered to take the edge off his de-tox. I entered his room with two attendants, both men. He was compliant, that is, until he saw the syringe.
What happened next happened fast. My staff stood on either side of me as I prepped his skin for a needle prick. I injected the drug that feels warm as it absorbs into the muscle. That’s when his voices must have gotten the better of him. He started fighting as if his life depended on it. Despite his tall frame, he was so emaciated, we were able to wrestle him down to the floor until more staff arrived. But before we took control, he kicked my hand that was holding the tray that now held the empty syringe. As if in slow motion, I watched the trajectory of that syringe as it spun in the air and landed on my shoe. The gods were with me that night because I had leather shoes on -not sandals -and that’s where the syringe lodged, in the toe portion of my thick leather shoe.
It was 1982. Even though at that time we still thought G.R.I.D. was transmitted via anal sex, I remember feeling great relief that I was not nicked by that dirty needle.
The truth was, G.R.I.D. scared me. This virus we knew so little about scared the hell out of me back then.