I Was a Nurse During the 1990s HIV Epidemic

HIV was a different kind of worse than COVID-19

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

In 1991, I graduated from nursing school and got my first job working the night shift at a local hospital. I was 24 years old.

It was the same year the famous basketball player Earvin’ Magic’ Johnson announced he was HIV positive, and Freddie Mercury from the rock band, ‘Queen,’ died of AIDS-related pneumonia. We were ten years into the AIDS pandemic and soon showing to be the number one cause of death for young men between ages 25–44.

The first time I took care of a young man with AIDS, I remember coming onto the floor to a whispering commotion amongst my coworkers.

“There’s a man with AIDS in room 423.” someone said. I looked down at my assignment. I had room 423.

The nurses seemed to be afraid of going into the room. One of them mentioned that she didn’t want to touch the patient, because she didn’t want to get AIDS.

“You don’t get AIDS from touching someone,” I said to her. By that time, everyone knew HIV transmitted through bodily fluid. Back in the 1980s, when the epidemic first hit, they speculated about airborne contamination. Doctors and nurses suited up in protective clothing to keep a barrier between themselves and this mysterious illness.

By the 1990s, experts found the virus wasn’t airborne. That didn’t make people, including medical workers, less afraid.

“You never know if they’re going to cough on you. Or bite you,” she said, as if having AIDS was some form of the disease that made you rabid.

I’d always been the nurse who made sure my patients were not in pain, so I was liberal with my pain assessments and getting patients medication to make them comfortable. I’d get mad at the nurse who made someone wait another hour or two when a patient told her that he was in pain.

I also was liberal with my human touch. I believed the hospital to be a cold and sterile environment, and many patients were scared and alone.

Back in the 1990s, we didn’t always approach a patient gowned and gloved. We touched them skin on skin. This is something that isn’t done with patients or people out in the community anymore.

I went into the room to give my patient his medication. He was there with his partner, who looked very worried about him. The patient had Kaposi Sarcoma on his skin, dark purple lesions on his legs, his arms, and his torso. He was a mere wisp of a man, so small lying in that hospital bed.

I came in and introduced myself and started my assessment. I put my hands on the patient’s shoulder as I listened to his heart and lungs.

Back during the AIDS pandemic, people were in a panic. They expressed their fears in aggressive ways. They cast blame on the gay community (LBGT was only starting to create a movement). It became a polarized and highly stigmatized disease.

There was no Google, no social media, no internet. We got information through watching local and national news stations, which hyped HIV and heightened the panic.

Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence in the United States if you’re able to afford the medication. There’s still much negative stigma attached. With our medical advances, science has come up with antivirals and improved it so people can live with the illness.

Now we have a new pandemic — COVID-19. Unlike the 1980s-1990s, we have 24/7 access to learn all we possibly can about this novel virus. The news and media say that 80% of diagnosed people experience mild-to-moderate symptoms. It has a 2–3% mortality rate, compared to a 0.1% mortality rate of regular Influenza. Influenza is the most common type of pandemic. Some viruses — like the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, “The Spanish Flu” — had a 20% mortality rate. Some of the past epidemics, such as the Plague and HIV, still exist today.

However, beyond our capability to now diagnose and develop treatments over time, reducing Pandemic spread remains the same. According to NCBI:

Once a pandemic has begun in earnest, public health efforts often focus on minimizing its spread. Limiting the spread of an epidemic can help to reduce the number of total people who are infected and thus also mitigate some of the indirect health and economic effects. Strategies to minimize pandemic spread include the following (Ferguson and others 2005):

Curtailing interactions between infected and uninfected populations: for example, through patient isolation, quarantine, social distancing practices, and school closures

Reducing infectiousness of symptomatic patients: for example, through antiviral and antibiotic treatment and infection control practices

Reducing susceptibility of uninfected individuals: for example, through vaccines.

During the pre-pandemic period, plans for implementing those measures should be developed and tested through simulation exercises.

My town of Lake Oswego is ground zero of COVID-19 in the State of Oregon.

What I hope for us is that we’re able to treat each other with respect and without blame while we face this new global situation. Pandemics are out of our control for the most part, and it’s enough for us to take the precautions needed to keep ourselves healthy. But we also need to support each other, especially during this time of social isolation, and as the number of those tested positive and mortality numbers rise. We are in for a difficult time.

This article was updated on March 22, 2020 to reflect the growing pandemic of COVID-19.

Michelle Jaqua is a blogger on Medium. You can visit her page here.

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Advocate for Women / Editor of The Virago

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