Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba (

Elena Schwolsky RN, MPH |

“Nurses in the Age of Contagion”
A Facebook post reminds me that today, May , is the start of National Nurses Week and tonight the sound of clanging, banging and clapping outside my window will summon me to step out to my stoop. I will open my door and join the salute to our essential workers, in this, the Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020. We are paying tribute to them all—the doctors, the grocery clerks, the home health aides, the postal carriers, the cleaners and subway workers who are helping us survive this disaster. But each time my wooden spoon hits the flame-burnished copper bottom of my old pot, I will think of the nurses. They appear on TV with hollow eyes and the red marks left by their masks etched on their faces, and I know in my bones the weariness they feel, the ache in their hearts, the deeper scars that will fade but never quite disappear when they finally step off the frontlines. Age and health and years away from hospital work compel me to sit this one out, but I too served in the trenches during a far different plague in a different moment in history. Clang, clang, clang–– I beat out a rhythm on my pot for the nurses—it’s about time! It’s about time, it’s about fucking time.

When I joined the staff of the Children’s Hospital AIDS Program (CHAP) in Newark, New Jersey and enlisted in the fight against a disease that was growing rapidly into a worldwide plague, I was not a new nurse, nor was I a young one. I had not been a girl who dreamed of becoming a nurse from childhood. My senior yearbook lists my career aspirations as writer, actress, and interpreter at the United Nations. But after dropping out of college to be a full-time activist in the late 60’s, and a series of low paying factory and clerical jobs, I found myself approaching thirty as a single mom with no marketable skills and 2 kids to support. Nursing school seemed like a reasonable choice. I graduated in 1980, spent some years accumulating experience on the pediatric wards of several hospitals, and then in 1988, I stepped into the vortex of the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

That early plague had its deniers and spreaders of lies just like this one. The virus that caused it was a mystery, new to the world of humans just like this one. And it appeared that certain groups in our human family were more susceptible, though at the beginning no one knew why. That plague came on more slowly, in what at first seemed like random clusters—young gay men in San Francisco and New York City, IV drug users, Haitian immigrants, and a small number of hemophiliacs and blood transfusion recipients–– until it gathered speed and rolled over the world. Soon those who were infected would be divided into the victims––those who were deemed innocent and without fault–– and the guilty, condemned for bringing it on themselves by their deviant, sinful or reckless behavior. Much like now, we had a President who, instead of providing leadership and compassion, refused to even speak the name of the disease until it had ravaged a generation.

Everyone was terrified at first. Could it be spread by sitting across from someone at the dinner table, by hugging someone, by a casual peck on the cheek, a handshake? Unlike Covid-19, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) could not be transmitted by any of those activities. In fact, it was very difficult to transmit. But that didn’t stop the fear, the stigma and discrimination that marked those early years and persist to this day. And that fear and stigma drifted like a cloud of acrid smoke over the heads of the nurses who chose to care for those who were suffering and dying. We wrapped ourselves in protective gear much like the nurses of today—gowns and masks and gloves that got in the way when we needed to make a bed, hold a hand or shed a tear. And when someone at a party asked what kind of work do you do, we tried not to get upset when the conversation ended abruptly.

There were no 7 p.m. salutes in the early 90’s––just nurses bathing feverish bodies, dressing wounds, bearing witness. Just nurses going to too many funerals. Just nurses unable to talk about anything else or keeping silent. Just nurses crying in the night or not crying at all.

I’m glad the nurses on the frontlines of this Covid-19 pandemic are being recognized for the courageous, compassionate heroes that they are, that nurses have been throughout history. I will be there every night on my stoop clanging away for them. I will advocate in whatever way I can for them to be protected and compensated and remembered. I will listen when they are ready to talk and be present when they are ready to cry.

And I will help them tell their stories and continue to tell mine.

Narrative Healthcare welcomes your words. If you write a reflection, a story, a poem, an essay, or jot something down on a scrap piece of paper, please send it to us through the contact page. Space is all we can offer, and we find that sometimes space is enough. 


I am writing to welcome you. I am Laura, the founder of the Narrative Healthcare program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. I work closely with my students on developing this simple little site. I am very glad you have “subscribed.” A few days ago, just before class, I made a Tweet thread on Twitter. Normally my tweets receive a like from my teenager, and that suffices. After class, I looked at my phone and saw the tweet was doing something said teenager calls “blowing up.” Thousands had liked and retweeted it.

287,000 people have liked it. More than 50,000 have retweeted it. And more than 2.5 million have “engaged” the entire thread. I wish to share my favorite comment with you:

Perhaps Dr I speaks for all of us. We all “need more humanity” in our lives right now. This is why we made this site.

May you find what you need.

We cannot thank you enough.


Laura Hope-Gill

Witness Fatigue and Narrative

Narrative Sessions on Saturdays at 3 p.m. in May

Witness Fatigue is that particular exhaustion that comes from seeing awful things happen to others. Call it empathy fatigue and witness fatigue as well. Photojournalists, journalists, healthcare providers, first responders all experience this: exhaustion from seeing. While we cope with the changes of the quarantines we are also seeing horrific treatment of people—utter neglect and even active cruelty in which the vulnerabilities are taken advantage of and exacerbated. We are seeing reckless endangerment of “essential workers” and global public health. This fatigue is one of the many that we are communally enduring. It is one of many stresses in this moment.

Also, we are hearing of friends’ loved ones—and of the loved ones of strangers dying unwitnessed, alone, and how no funerals are happening, people are grieving unwitnessed.

We, too, are facing challenges and stresses we once could talk over with friends for hours in person. We experience them now for the most part unwitnessed.

So, we are witnessing a lot and we are in need of being witnessed. There are dimensions of witness. Witnessing ourselves, witnessing ourselves bearing witness, and bearing witness. This is a lot to carry without some means of processing.

This is a cornerstone of narrative medicine work. On Saturday at 3 pm Eastern, I will facilitate a Narrative Session in Zoom. I’ll post event. We will close-read a passage or a poem and then engage in an informal reflective-writing session. Then we will listen to one another in a entirely non-judgement and purely witnessing posture. After, we will feel we have processed some of this story and have an instrument to maintaining the witness stance and posture going forward.…

Meeting will close at 3:10. Be on time.

A Lesser Known Work, Recently Discovered

Daniel J. Waters, DO, MA

Stratford-on-Avon, UK   Bard scholars are abuzz about a newly discovered manuscript thought to be an early draft of perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous drama, Hamlet. The single section of decipherable text appears to be a portion of a longer soliloquy. The draft is thought to have been written during the cold, damp spring of  1609  when England’s most well-known playwright had a bad cold or perhaps might have even been suffering from the influenza virus.

The play was originally titled Droplet and only later in the year was it renamed. The speech is given by Droplet, the main protagonist of this early version. Perhaps due to the infectious nature of the author’s illness, the soliloquy questions – as we do today – whether obscuring one’s nose and mouth with an opaque physical barrier confers any true benefit in times of epidemic:

To mask or not to mask,
That is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows
Of outrageous aerosols
Or take PPE against a sea of capsids
And by opposing resist them
To cough, perchance to breathe,
Ay, there’s the pleural rub

The references to acute  upper respiratory illness were later removed (perhaps once Shakespeare had recovered) and the speech revised, becoming what is perhaps the most quoted block of text in the English language.

Shakespeare purists have decried the find as a hoax, citing the anachronistic medical terminology and dismissing it as “FakeBard.”  This has ignited an unbridled and often pithy Tweetstorm of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. Jeff Chaucer, a Professor of
Classics at Oxford, opined that “Sometimes the funniest things are true.”

Definitive authentication of the manuscript is ongoing by what a spokeswoman for the Royal Shakespeare Society referred to as “top men” and was incomplete when this report was filed.

A meeting with the facilitators

Yesterday, I met with the team of facilitators, whose bios you can find on the Presenters page of this website. I invite you to read them to see just how varied a team we are. A thoracic surgeon, two community-development social workers, two pastors, a nurse manager, a public health general practitioner, a ER physician assistant, and a public health program developer. Those are their titles. When we come together as classmates and colleagues, even after a year since our last gathering, we settle into a friendship and conversation with purpose and joy.

All had never heard of Narrative Medicine or Narrative Healthcare (my term for the mix of Narrative Medicine, Poetic Medicine, and Expressive Writing presented as ways of incorporating writing into clinical practice) when they first contacted or heard about me. I explained it as well as I could. How do you find a language that bridges two languages?

After one close-reading session and one reflective-writing exercise, each one saw the value of Dr. Charon’s method. It sounds so simple. The process is. The effects are anything but. Reading stories and writing reflectively changes us. It complexifies that which we thought we understood, about ourselves, about the world, about our place in it. It makes us more self-aware while providing the means for living in this complexity. When we gather and when we talk about how we will facilitate and guide others in narrative practice, it is with trust and recognition.

We have all walked along the path we are inviting attendees to join us on. We have found the language for the bridge between languages, and we are excited to share it. And we thank Dr. Charon for providing the materials for so building.