Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba (shewritespress.com)
Elena Schwolsky RN, MPH | www.elenaschwolsky.com
“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.
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