Friday, December 18, 2009

The Big Die Off

In the middle and late eighties, I worked the night shift at Santa Monica Hospital. This was after AIDS had been identified as a retro virus but before anybody knew exactly what it was or how to treat it. There was an AIDS floor there with 15-20 patients all the time. Stays ranged from a few weeks to a few months. Nobody went home or anywhere else. They all died, horribly.

They couldn't staff it. They paid extra money. They gave smaller patient assignments. They didn't require any special training or skills. They didn't care if you were conscientious or a Demerol addicted junkie. They still couldn't get anybody. They would float people from other units. Some people got doctors excuses not to work there. Some would just quit if forced to. I used to float there a lot. Somebody had to.

It was terrifying. The unit was supposed to be on blood and secretion precautions. It was a joke. Those guys leaked every kind of fluid there was, in large amounts. A lot of the time they sprayed it. The walls would drip. The sheets would saturate. The floors would puddle. The linen and medical waste hampers overflowed and the full bags stacked up. The stenches were amazing and the various deodorants they tried just made it worse. There were constant screams, moans and cries for help. Between 2 and 5 AM there would be deaths. You'd try and clean up the bodies for when the families came in but they just kept on leaking. We tried to keep everybody comfortable and give everybody all their meds. A lot of the meds had side effects worse than the symptoms of the disease and they got refused. Everybody there knew they were dying and had a real good idea what it would be like.

I did the best I could. Honestly, I think I was as good as anybody else and better than most. I never worried about getting AIDS from working there. AIDS is is pretty hard to catch. After a while I kind of liked it. Nobody ever gave you a hard time. You never saw a supervisor. Sometimes you had to work over until they found somebody to replace you but they never made you work a full double shift on the AIDS floor.

I never regarded homosexual people the same after that. Almost every patient there was Gay, male, my age or younger. There was never any pretense. What would be the point? I couldn't say if they died bravely. I don't even know what that would be. I know I wouldn't have been any different from them, if it had been me dying.

Over the years, other places, I worked with AIDS patients. Never anything like that again.

No comments: