I’m lying in a big bed, being rolled through the long empty corridors of St. Mary’s Hospital. The male nurse who pushes me is quiet and, since we’re heading for the operating room, I feel anxious. I want him to say something, I want to see his face. I want him to ask me how I’m doing.
But all I can see are the fluorescent lights floating past. I’m rolled onto an elevator. The nurse asks a woman and child to step aside and pushes the ‘DOWN’ button. The woman visitor won’t look at me but the child does. I smile at her and she smiles too.
When the elevator doors open, I’m pushed past a sign that reads ‘MEDICAL STAFF ONLY.’ The air is icy cold and I shiver. I’m wheeled through a set of doors into a room that’s completely white. I see people with blue masks over their faces. I recognize the anesthesiologist who spoke to me earlier. My surgeon steps into view. “What are we doing for you today Ed?” he asks. He’s confirming what’s about to happen for the surgical team. I tell him that my left knee is going to be replaced. The handrails on both sides of the bed are lowered and I’m guided into something that looks like a giant swing. Blinding lights are moved into place while my left leg is strapped into a harness. The anesthesiologist whispers in my ear that I will be asleep soon. I feel something touching the area above my left knee. I hear him say, “It’s time to insert the femoral shunt.” I can feel it, something being inserted into my groin, and I panic. “I’m awake,” I shout. “I can still feel my leg.” I’m terrified, but everyone is busy, preparing for the several hours that lay ahead. An oxygen mask is placed over my nose and mouth. “Breathe deeply Mr. Wolf. You’ll be asleep soon.”
The next thing I’m aware of is being in a large ward with others who’ve also just come out of surgery. I see machines monitoring blood pressures, oxygen masks over faces. I can feel my left knee, far far away, faintly throbbing. A nurse leans over me and asks, “On a scale of 1 to 10 (she holds up all her fingers) what is your pain level?” I’ve been prompted earlier in the day to say 9, no matter what my pain level really is. I whisper 8 and she injects something into the IV that’s in my arm. I drift off again.
I wake up in a small room. I can see the night sky through a narrow window. The clock on the wall says 9:10. I was taken down to surgery at 4 in the afternoon. Five hours have passed. It’s over.
When I turn my head I can see through the partly open door, out into the hallway. I can’t hear anything. I wait for someone to come in. I start to drift off again.
There’s a knock at the door and when it opens I see myself coming into the room. It’s 1986. I’m in my mid-30s. I say, “I’m one of the counselors here on the ward and I wanted to come by and say hello, to see how you’re doing.” I look at myself. My hair is darker; I’m thinner. I watch myself move towards the bed. The only chair is by the window, so I stand at the side of the bed, looking down. I seem friendly, confident and present. I’m not exactly smiling, but I’m open. I look like someone that might be easy to respond to.
I talk to this younger version of myself, tell him I’ve just had my knee replaced, what it felt like being pushed through empty hospital corridors. I describe the terrifying moment when they inserted the femoral shunt while I was still awake. I start to tremble and the young man leans forward and puts his hand on mine. He asks me how I’m feeling now, what my pain level is. He must have read my chart because he knows I have a partner; he asks me about Kirk. A nurse comes into the room to check my blood pressure and help me into a clean gown. The young man excuses himself and steps out into the hall.
And suddenly, I’m back there, San Francisco General Hospital, 1986, walking from room to room on Ward 5A, which is the AIDS Unit. All 20 rooms on the ward are occupied and there are other AIDS patients throughout the hospital; the patients are waiting to come to Ward 5A where they know the primarily gay and lesbian staff won’t be afraid of them. Each room holds one bed, each bed holds a gay man, each one diagnosed with Pneumocystis, pulmonary KS, toxoplasmosis, cryptococcal meningitis, failure to thrive. All fatal diseases.
Some of the patients have visitors, others are alone. Some of the visitors stand in the hallway, not wanting to go into rooms, not knowing what they should say, not knowing what they will see — just waiting. A mother tells me she hardly recognizes her son because KS lesions have disfigured his face. A young man calls out, asking me to come into his room. He wants his boyfriend to lay down next to him; I can see that the boyfriend is afraid to do so. An older man weeps loudly at the end of hall. As I approach him, I see that he’s yelling, not crying; someone calls the security guard from the emergency room.
All day long, patients are admitted, diagnosed, discharged — some die. Almost all of them are gay men. The staff works as quickly as possible to get to everything that needs to be done over the course of a 12-hour shift. It’s hard to know, at times, how to be helpful to some of the patients. There’s talk of medications, of rehabilitation, assisted living, support systems and recovery. But the understanding is that most of these patients will die of AIDS.
When I worked at the hospital I lived in the Bernal Heights District of San Francisco. It took me 25 minutes to walk home each day. When I wasn’t at work, I could see the hospital from my living room window. At the hospital, I could see my apartment from the Visitor’s Lounge at the end of the hall. It seemed impossible to separate my experiences on the AIDS ward from the rest of my life.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1976, I worked in a printing factory with 2 gay men and a young woman. In 81, I began working in a typesetting company with 6 other gay men. By the time the 80s came to a close, they were all dead except one.
Once I got involved in AIDS service work, the number of sick and dying in my life was impossible to keep track of. Many of my co-workers at the volunteer agency that I worked with, all of the early clients whom I volunteered with, even some of the nurses from the AIDS unit; all dead and gone by the time the successful HIV treatments arrived in 1995. And this gruesome litany doesn’t yet include any of the close friends I had before arriving in San Francisco, the gay men I went to school with in Florida in the late 60s, the friends who I lived with in New York in the early 70s, when the gay liberation movement was just beginning. Out of all those comrades who became ill, none of them are alive today. And, of course, I’m not alone with this story. So many others could tell this same tale, could write these same words, if they’d been able to survive.
As I lay in my bed at St. Mary’s, I can see out into the corridor through the open door. It’s late. Noone’s there. When I look around the room, I see the clock, the dry erase board with the date and my nurse’s name: Rose. I can’t find the television’s remote control. It’s easiest to just lie back and close my eyes. Others have laid here in this room during the late hours; in that way I’m not alone. And I know that in the morning the physical therapist will come and help me take my first few steps with my new knee. But for now, the great sadness rises up out of me, as it does from time to time.
So much death, so much loss. Why? What is the point of all that suffering?
To be continued . . .