May 5, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 18
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Monday, Sep 16, 2019



Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
The Plague and I
Every life with a sudden change  a hairpin turn, a redefinition  feels that it has a story. This is mine. The defining change in my own life was not a complete surprise.

It was fall, 1990, and I had had a needle stick six months before. An industrial accident. The difference between my industrial accident and many others like it, is the amount of fluid I received and its viral concentration.

45th Street clinic, finding in me a month-long flulike illness, finally checked for AIDS. Back then a serological test for HIV took something over two nerve-racking weeks, and of course it was positive. At least you could say I was too old to die young.


At that time there was only one antiviral, not everyone could take it, and eventually it would fail. Im not a passive individual, and to avoid thinking of the misery I had seen others go through, I took up heavy drinking. This didnt work. I think there has been some chemical change in my skull, such that I can drink, but I only fall on my face. I dont get high. I didnt like myself that way, and besides it made me sicker. Since avoidance didnt work, I was forced to think.

My Bachelors includes the study of Virology. Could I help myself...? I shook off my initial paralysis, and considered this.


What could I do to try and save myself...?

An idea grabbed me: I would just have my bone marrow frozen  this way I would have it for later when I would have few white cells (marrow makes blood cells). The more I thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded  I had often quick-frozen living cells for later resuscitation: I knew the technology was there. I ran around for weeks, culling methods from (old) journals. Then I tried to interest the Blood Bank in saving my life.

I explained what I wanted to do, and why; I was turned down like a bed sheet. Then I campaigned at the University. I believe I walked into every laboratory which seemed to have the capacity to nitrogen-freeze anything. I received careful gibberish, meaning: oh-oh  bad ju-ju. At least they hinted that I wouldnt have the money to keep my cells frozen, which surprised me. Werent human beings to be counted before the cash?

So what other institutions (in 1990) worked with cell lines (like cancer research): ask at Swedish. Which sent me to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Aah, where is a tape recorder when you need one? I visited a number of offices, each of which declared itself The Wrong One. Finally I landed in the office of some sort of administrator. He bade me to sit down. But we shortly were standing.

I told him what I wanted to do and for the first time I emphasized the fact that I was wounded in the line of duty. Frankly, I hoped to remind him that such things could happen to people he knew... but maybe Im somehow too Queer for middle-class men to identify with, because almost immediately he was angry. Perhaps at the intimation that we were in any way alike.


He cleared up any hope that I could help myself. At least directly. First off, his staff there were doing important things. Secondly, marrow samplings were bloody affairs that used sharp tools, endangering valuable technicians (they could cut themselves  get HIV). Thirdly, no freezer space was available to the public; fourth, Bill Gates himself couldnt afford to keep his marrow or cell lines frozen for long, so I certainly couldnt. And where did I get off with this bullshit about preserving cells, when dedicated scientists werent sure this worked; and where did I get off imagining I could... could  when important people were dying?

He was remarkably angry. There was nothing objective, or scientific, or humane in anything he showed or said. But that was the thing about the AIDS plague, theres this moralism about PWAs deserving it. God hath scourged the weirdly sexed and the druggies.

(And those who received blood before we could screen it, and ignorant sexual partners, and premature babies. )


Fortunately, Ive been successfully taking antivirals since 1992, and only AZT gave me very much trouble  you see, I had the luck not to be infected before AIDS drugs.

I think this is where Im supposed to moralize over what all this has taught me. Not much. Im suspicious of stories about folks who  having lost all family members in a range fire  find its all worthwhile because theyve learned or discovered something, such as Podiatry or God.

God, I do miss working. Or maybe I just miss being vigorous enough to work....

I havent been one of those folks who takes the cocktail and wins a decathlon. Im exhausted all the time, and in considerable pain. Does that surprise you? It did me. I didnt know that pain is a hallmark of AIDS.


It was probably inevitable that there would be a reaction against Safe Sex; there was just too much goody-goodyness about it. Too much like preaching against sex. And drugs. And now that there are all these antivirals it seems reasonable to bare-back  and being young and strong now, guys wont want to grow old anyway. But they may find life is just as precious at 30, 40, 50... as it was at 18.

And like my friend who wanted AIDS so that she could be thin, many people who have not seen what it can do have a romanticized misunderstanding  rather like a 19th-century poets view of TB. AIDS usually starts slowly, but is not a pretty death. People, or at least Americans, are well known to run from sickness and death. And death, from what Ive seen, is lonely enough.


A friend tells me that a few months ago he was discussing this subject with a group of younger Gay people, and learned that they had never met anyone with AIDS. How tempus fugits. Well, even though there are AIDS drugs now, they do eventually fail. Not everyone realizes this. And for the first time in a number of years, the numbers of both positives and AIDS cases is increasing... (and dont tell me about those folks who are positive but never convert. There are people who survive lockjaw, and anthrax, and rabies).

Something tells me those folks will eventually meet their share.

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