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History Lost

It was front page news once. In 1981 in this country, men, most of whom were gay, began contracting a mysterious illness. Only later that decade was it identified as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a virus which attacks the immune system, weakening it by destroying cells intended to fight disease and infection. HIV, left unchecked, progresses to the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), resulting in a depleted immune system susceptible to opportunistic infections, such as cancer and pneumonia.

The early years of this pandemic, which became a global outbreak, were marked by terrifying loss, prejudice, fear, ignorance, and government inaction. Those infected were often shunned by family members, their church, their community. Many were left to die alone in barren, isolated hospital wards. Jerry Falwell, founder of The Moral Majority, said, in 1982, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” Pat Buchanan, then President Reagan’s communication director, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men.” AIDS was disparagingly referred to as the “Gay Plague,” and the nation turned its back.

There were no life-saving medicines in those first years. Contracting the virus meant almost certain death. The first medication – AZT – only became available in 1987; its effectiveness was uneven, short term, and riddled with side effects. Research on new drugs lagged due to government indifference. President Reagan did not utter a public word on AIDS until 1987, several years into his administration. Resentful, angry voices led the way in igniting the public’s conscience against such malice detachment. Author Randy Shilts (“And The Band Played On”) and Larry Kramer, founder of the activist group ACT UP, were among those demanding action.

This is history lost.

In marking another World AIDS Day December 1, reflection on that past is due. There are many unsung champions from those distant years who, from the front trenches, took on the thankless caregiving tasks for the dying that family members and others relinquished. Ruth Coker Burks was one of those champions.

Profiled in the December 1 edition of the CBS program “Sunday Morning,” she befriended many men with AIDS in Arkansas after an unlikely inheritance of cemetery plots (view this segment on the “Sunday Morning” website). She came upon the harsh realities of the disease when she wandered into an AIDS ward of a local hospital and found a young man, in his twenties, isolated and alone with no visitors to be found. She stayed with him, despite the staff’s wariness, until he died. From there, she became the mom to countless sons, and, with no options for burial as they died of AIDS-related complications, she donated her cemetery plots for the forgotten children she had embraced.

Looking back at my tenure as Client Services Coordinator for the Muskegon Area AIDS Resource Services organization in the 1990’s, I remember our local champions who provided support and comfort to those in this area with HIV/AIDS. I look back at the many resolute volunteers who provided transportation to medical appointments, who delivered food, who sat at the bedsides of those we assisted, who brought the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Muskegon, who worked the fundraisers to keep the organization vital. I look back at the volunteer who returned to Muskegon after many years in New York, weary of the unrelenting funerals there of friends and colleagues who had succumbed to AIDS. Despite the fatigue, the grief, he became a passionate champion for our organization.

I remember the many we helped, the many we lost. I also look back at a turning point that decade when new medications became available, and an almost certain death sentence was reversed. There was an individual here in Muskegon, near death one summer, who set at rest his end-of-life matters, reconciled to an inevitable outcome. His doctor, not relinquishing hope, put him on the new medication regimen, and his recovery was swift and astonishing. He returned to work that fall, and now, twenty years later, continues a meaningful life. 

It is still with us, though. Proper treatment protocols still lag in vast areas on this planet. Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 32 million people worldwide have died of AIDS-related illnesses, among them 700,000 Americans. We remember those lost; we must remember the past. Author and activist David Mixner said, “All of my peers died of AIDS, and I have no one to celebrate my past or my journey, or to help me pass down stories to the next generation. We lost an entire generation of storytellers with HIV.”

Those of us who lived that past are now beholden to those lost, to take their place, to tell their stories.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com

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