In 1986, I received my master’s degree in social work and started a job as a home care social worker at Hospice of Northern Virginia in Arlington, VA. The AIDS epidemic was picking up speed and the healthcare world was overwhelmed by this strange virus that seemed to target gay men across the country.
At the time, a diagnosis of AIDS meant a life expectancy of about six months. The disease ravaged the body and there was very little anyone could do to delay the process. On top of that, no one knew for sure how the disease was spread so there was panic among healthcare workers and the general public about the possibility of contracting the disease simply from being near someone with AIDS.
I was part of a group of hospice staff who were trained to work with AIDS patients. This was one of the most extraordinary times of my career. While we didn’t know all of the risks associated with the virus, we believed it was our job to make sure our patients felt that we would care for them with acceptance, dignity, and compassion. You see, it wasn’t just the disease these people had to battle. They also had to battle the stigma of being gay and being contagious. It was devastating and very isolating.
In 1987, a small group of people in San Francisco created panels for a quilt as a way to remember friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. The concept caught on and 25 years later the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now with 47,000 panels, will make its way to Washington, DC on June 27 as a way to remember the 93,000 people honored on the panels.
The quilt is a powerful reminder of the far-reaching effects of AIDS. It also reminds us that people are still dying today here and around the world. I encourage you to check it out in person or online. There is also a wonderful movie called Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt narrated by Dustin Hoffman and accompanied by the music of Bobby McFerrin.
I was honored to care for a number of men who died of AIDS. I will never forget the indignity they experienced from this disease. But I will be forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to serve them in some small way.
As with many of the tragedies our country has seen, whether it be slavery, 9/11, or AIDS, the quilt is a visual reminder that we must never forget those who suffered and that we must always strive to support anyone affected by these kinds of experiences in the future.