The new terror of AIDS
Pierre-Donat Robitaille’s birthday party last year began with a joke: 10 of his friends decorated a vanilla cake with 49 candles—11 more than his age. But the joke turned out badly because Robitaille, a bartender in downtown Toronto, was hardly able to blow the candles out. And two days later he was admitted to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital with a rare form of pneumonia. Then, doctors told him the devastating news: he had contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the incurable condition that has already claimed 145 lives in Canada during the past three years and is assuming epidemic proportions around the world. Now, with screen idol Rock Hudson stricken by the usually fatal disease, AIDS has finally become an openly discussed, potentially terrifying international preoccupation.
Miracle: For his part, Robitaille this week faces another birthday, almost alone and knowing that it will likely be his last. He has a gaunt appearance, his face has a grey pallor and he has had to struggle constantly against depression. Said Robitaille: “I have lost 80 per cent of my friends.” Indeed, AIDS has stripped Robitaille of nearly everything he holds dear. He has lost his job (his employer told him that his condition was “not good for business”) and his lover left him, Robitaille said, “because he did not want to die.” And last week, surrounded by the stained-glass windows he makes as a hobby, Robitaille said he would hope for a miracle on his birthday. He added, “I will wish for a cure for AIDS—if not for me, then for those who will get it soon.”
Robitaille has been reduced to living on welfare payments of $375 per month, afflicted by a disease that has spread with devastating swiftness through homosexual communities since U.S. researchers identified the condition four years ago (page 36). At the same time, fear and concern over AIDS has risen as the number of victims increased, as researchers discovered that heterosexuals could catch the disease through sexual contact—or even from a victim’s saliva—and as AIDS carriers transmitted the condition to new victims through blood transfusions (page 38). Then, late last month the disease acquired a new visibility as Hudson, the Hollywood film star of the 1950s and 1960s, and more
recently a TV star as well, announced in Paris that he had AIDS.
Hudson had travelled to France in the hope that an antiviral substance being tested at the Pasteur Clinic would cure his condition. Then, last week he flew back to California aboard an Air France 747 jet chartered at a cost of $250,000. But his haggard appearance on televi-
sion news reports and in newspaper photographs of the former leading man produced a wave of sympathy for all AIDS victims and created a surge of interest in the search for a cure. To that end, several of Hudson’s friends in Hollywood, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster and Burt Reynolds, announced that they were planning a benefit performance next month with the goal of raising $1 million to combat AIDS.
As he tried to regain his dwindling strength in a Los Angeles clinic—with a get-well card from U.S. President Ronald Reagan nearby—Hudson’s condition had clearly accomplished some good. For one thing, the announcement linked a famous face and name to AIDS’ grim
and lengthening columns of statistics. In the United States more than 12,000 victims have contracted the disease which almost invariably kills them within three years. In New York state alone, where almost 4,000 cases have been reported, AIDS has become the leading cause of death for men between 25 and 44. Declared Richard Dunne, executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a counselling and health service for homosexuals: “I know 20 to 30 people who have died. I do not know if my mother knows as many friends or acquaintances who have died.”
Suspect: The numbers are much smaller in Canada, where doctors have diagnosed 288 cases of AIDS during the past three years. Of those, 145 have already proved fatal. And Dr. Alastair Clayton of the federal Laboratory Centre for Disease Control in Ottawa estimated that doctors had not reported as many as 90 cases of the disease. Indeed, federal health officials suspect that as many as 24,000 Canadians may be carriers of AIDS antibodies. There are now an estimated one million carriers of AIDS antibodies in North America alone, prompting Dr. Robert Redfield, a researcher at the Walter Reed Institute in Washington, D.C., to declare: “This is a general disease now. Anyone could catch it.”
In Hudson’s case, he began experiencing the early symptoms of AIDS, fatigue and weight loss, nearly two years ago. Doctors soon discovered that he had, at least, a form of the disease, but they allowed him to honor his commitment to appear in six episodes of the Dynasty television series. Last month when he flew to Paris he did not initially tell even the doctors at the American Hospital that he had AIDS. That, in turn, led to confused reports about his condition until Hudson himself made the decision to announce the nature of his illness publicly.
Surgery: Hudson’s homosexuality had been a closely guarded Hollywood secret which, if it had become known, would have destroyed the macho image that he developed in scores of movies, such as Magnificent Obsession in 1954. But friends say he frequently visited gay bars and went on occasional drinking sprees.
If sexual promiscuity and carelessness were seen during the days of “gay liberation” as the hallmarks of North
America’s homosexual communities, the spectre of AIDS has given them a sober sense of co-operation and even collective bravery nowhere more than in San Francisco, where the disease is a political, as well as a public health issue. There, 667 of 1,307 AIDS victims have died so far in a city where an estimated 70,000 homosexuals form one of the largest and most influential communities in North America.
Fear of contracting AIDS has affected bathhouses and clubs which thrived by offering places for casual sex. Now a steep drop in business has forced 12 baths and sex clubs to close down, and those remaining have abandoned such practices as providing “glory holes” for anonymous sexual encounters. Instead, club owners are now urging their customers to use condoms during intercourse—or suggesting that they indulge in mutual masturbation, a practice that does not carry the risk of contacting AIDS through the exchange of semen or saliva.
‘Victims’: At the same time, San Francisco health officials have noted a decline in the number of cases of other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea—in part, they say, because many homosexuals have stopped performing anal intercourse. And in a June telephone survey which polled 500 homosexual and bisexual men, the city’s AIDS Foundation found that eight out of 10 respondents said they had made dramatic changes in their sexual behavior and now stressed safe sex practices. Said Randy Shilts, a reporter who regularly writes about AIDS for The San Francisco Chronicle: “Being sleazy is just passé. It is a whole different ball game now. The biggest gay gatherings are at Alcoholics Anonymous, with people trying to get off the fast track. And many gay men have become involved in counselling groups and volunteer work to help AIDS victims. ”
Fear: The preference for safer sex is also growing in Vancouver’s homosexual community. In Neighbor’s, a wellappointed nightclub heavily patronized by homosexuals, assistant manager William Harvey estimated that the club’s revenue has dropped by 30 per cent during the past year. Still, his club remains open, unlike two nearby steambaths in the crowded West End of the city which closed because of poor business. Harvey cited AIDS as the cause. He added: “We had five customers die of it last year. There is a lot less cruising now—people are taking more time to get to know each other. Before, you could go home on a handshake.”
Customers sitting on the other side of the bar confirmed Harvey’s observations. Said a 30-year-old office employee with the federal government: “AIDS has affected my life very deeply—and the
way I look at people and relationships. Two of my friends have it.” Others agreed, stressing that fear of contracting the disease had led them to change their sexual practices. Added Bruce Smyth, the co-owner of Little Sisters, a
West End bookstore which caters to homosexuals: “I certainly do not have anal sex anymore without a safe [condom]. And I have cut down on the number of my sexual partners.”
There have been similar discussions in bars, restaurants, clubs and living rooms throughout the continent. And following Hudson’s disclosure and the remarkable wave of sympathy it produced, AIDS victims came forward to tell their story. Among them:
• Walter lives in Montreal and, fearing recognition, declined to give his full name. When he spoke at an AIDS conference at the University of Quebec last May he cloaked himself in a white hospital gown and black goggles. He has lived with AIDS for two years and he has suffered through several associated diseases, including pneumonia, and now cancer. Like many other sufferers, he is not only very sick but broke and isolated as well. And last week he described
his life with a degree of bitterness. Said Walter: “What I can say is that last week I had AIDS. This week I have Rock Hudson’s disease. I wish he had publicly come out with it a year ago, because maybe a lot more funding and interest
and communications would have happened. But at least it is happening now.” Walter lives on a disability insurance payment of $440 a month, which he says is “far from fair.” When he learned that he had AIDS he said he was “totally devastated by the death sentence it implied, by the physical pain and discomfort and by the isolation.” He added, “I had a lot of hard times in the hospital because the staff was afraid to come into my room.” And he had more trouble still finding a dentist who would treat his decaying teeth. Indeed, no dentist would approach him “and now my teeth are totally destroyed. The decay has gone right to the bone.”
Still, Walter said that
he found comfort in the company of others with AIDS. He added: “The first two people I met who had it are now dead. But I recently met some other people who look like they are going to be around for a bit. The anguish—the
emotional anguish, the mental anguish and of course the physical, AIDS means death.”
• Allan Pletcher, a Vancouver community college teacher, learned that he had AIDS three months ago. He already suspected that his body carried the virus, and for four years he was tired and wracked by a bad cough that still convulses his body. When doctors at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital told him last May that he had only about a year to live he said that “I took it as death sentence.” Since then, he said, he has learned to accept and to fight his condition, encouraged by stories of sufferers who have lived as many as four years afI ter their diagnosis. But
the scene of his inevitable deathbed still haunts his imagination. He wants to die in his own Victorian bed, under his handcrafted quilt and surrounded by friends. Added Pletcher: “I am concerned that I will be in pain or in a coma. I want to die in my own room and be conscious. I fear dying but not death.”
More fortunate than most AIDS sufferers,
Pletcher lives on a $480 weekly disability payment and sometimes he is able to dine out with friends. Still, one recent dinner host asked him if he would mind eating off a paper plate. Said Pletcher: “I was hurt, but I understand the fear that is around.”
• James Black, 37, of Toronto said that he believes he caught the lethal virus last August after he had anal intercourse with a South African whom he met through an advertisement placed in The Toronto Star. In September he collapsed with exhaustion and physicians at Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital told him that he had either malaria or AIDS. It was not until January, after more bouts of illness, that Dr. Jenny Heathcote of Toronto Western Hospital told Black, “It’s AIDS.” Black asked, “Is it buy-the-casket and order-the-flowers time?” The answer, although unstated, was yes. He is expected to die this fall.
Black has dropped to 120 lb. from his former weight of 186 and has brain seizures, bronchitis and yeast infections on his hands and mouth.
But his spirit lives in the T-shirt he wears, which boldly proclaims “Choose Life.” Said Black: “Don’t feel sorry for me. I know what I have and I have accepted it. I am not ashamed —unlucky, yes, but not ashamed.” Many of Black’s friends have deserted him, and when he applied for a disability pension a Toronto welfare worker told him, “You may not live long enough to make the paperwork worthwhile.” Black is giving whatever energy he can manage to his duty as a spokesman for the AIDS
Committee of Toronto.
One friend who has not deserted Black is his roommate, 19-year-old Kevin Stacey, a Toronto department store clerk. In caring for Black, Stacey carefully scalds their dishware. Indeed, he has
few illusions about the risks that he faces. Said Stacey: “It is scary but I am well informed, and that is the message I want to get across to people. I asked myself, ‘Should I take off or should I
handle this with the dignity he deserves?’ It was the least I could do. I love him so much.”
• AIDS sufferer Edward McLaren, 31, a former University of British Columbia student of landscape architecture, faces his fate with composure. Said McLaren:
“Life isn’t really all that different when you have a disease like this. You either carry on and get as much out of it as you can or you curl up in a corner and cry the blues.” But for McLaren, carrying on means living with neurological distress — including memory loss and loss of balance—headaches and a dramatically reduced lung capacity because of a bout with pneumocystis pneumonia, a common AIDS complication. His doctor told him last September that he had AIDS but the news did not surprise him. Said McLaren: “My sinuses had been giving me problems all summer. I had gone for my regular checkup and the balance of cells was way out. A good sign of AIDS.”
McLaren lives on a provincial government handicap pension of $560 a month, supplemented by a monthly Canada Pension payment of $250. But his life is made more bearable by the continuing support of family and friends. Several friends visit regularly to talk “about the deep, dark mystery of AIDS.” And when he was released from an eight-week stay in hospital last fall six friends took turns cooking his supper each night.
Struck: For every AIDS sufferer still alive and able to tell of his experience, there remains the memory of another victim whom the disease has silenced forever. Within the Erickson family of Fort St. John, a small community in northern British Columbia, that memory is still fresh. Louise Ann Erickson was in the prime of life when she died two weeks ago at 40, leaving behind a husband and two preteen children. She remained healthy until a month before her death, but she was struck down suddenly by pneumocystis pneumonia, a consequence of the AIDS virus that had lodged in her body three years ago, probably following blood transfusions during a cancer operation. Three hundred mourners attended a memorial service for Erickson at St. Luke’s United Church, and they gave donations for AIDS research that “filled a grocery bag,” according to Rev. Ann Foster.
The gesture moved the entire province. Said Foster: “We are trying to take a senseless tragedy and make it a little less senseless.” It is a tragedy that is repeating itself with a distressing and increasing frequency at a time when medical practice was never more promising—or more powerless.
in New York and