Sunday, June 6, 2010

why I walked

I admit I only signed up for the AIDS Walk because L, the HIV social worker in my clinic, was the captain of the team and intercepted me on the way to the hospital cafeteria with her strategically placed table.

And when I got to the walk this morning, many of our "Team Members" had evidently contented themselves with having raised a little bit or a lot of money--most didn't show up to our team meeting spot on the rainy morning of the actual walk. That's fine, really; our hospital employee team was a "Gold Team", and as a medicine resident from a rival hospital sheepishly noted, our hospital's team raised more money than that other bigger hospital's team did. Really, everyone who shows up and takes a tote bag and water and granola bars is probably just costing the AIDS Action Committee money--so maybe it's a favor to raise money and then bag the walk--there's even a category called "virtual walkers" to describe this strategy.

Still, it seemed like I was supposed to be there, so I went.

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By mile 2 or 3 I'd separated from my fellow employees and could have easily hopped the T and gone home. Our hospital had done its bit--a community relations person had waved our sign around, we'd raised our money--and now it was time for the teams of the corporate sponsors, college charity groups, and AIDS non-profits and government agencies to finish the walk. Or so I thought for a moment. And then I started really making note of a small but persistent group of teams, each with their team t-shirts, made to memorialize a family member.

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It was the 25th annual AIDS walk in Boston--they've been doing these things since 1985. A long time. Walking on my own, I was speeding up to get back to the finish line. I thought some about the morning teaching session I need to do on Wednesday--I think I'm going to do it about a patient of mine with AIDS.

As I walked, I noticed that the AIDS Walk had put up these little signs noting each year of the walk and events in AIDS history. I started doing AIDS work and volunteering in 1991, when I arrived in San Francisco. It was the red ribbon/Magic Johnson year, the signs reminded me--the year that AIDS most clearly became a part of mainstream culture. Sometimes I can be hard on myself about why it was I started then, when it was easier, and not in 1988, after I found out that my student government teacher had died, or in high school, in the mid-eighties, when passing out condoms would have been a radical act. (To ease up slightly on myself, it's true that I hadn't yet really had sex myself, so the gesture would have been a complicated one.) But then the next panel reminded me: that next year, 1992, was the year that AIDS became the biggest cause of death for young men in the United States. And in 1992, it only seemed like it was going to get worse.

1991-2010: I've been somehow involved in AIDS work almost all of those years, with a few small breaks for parts of my medical training. More than half the epidemic--in fact, now, about two-thirds of it, minus the very worst years. Next year will be 20 years, out of 30. I don't know what to say about that exactly. I could have stopped in 1997, since from 1991 to 1996 I said I would stop doing AIDS work and start doing something else "when the crisis is over" and when I said crisis I meant the kind of mass death that ended in San Francisco with highly active antiretroviral therapy.

But I didn't stop, though most of my friends who were also there for the crisis did. I'm still not sure why I didn't go do something else. For a brief moment in 1997, I almost went to work for an ad agency but I got another AIDS job instead, and I was relieved and knew I'd made the right choice. During a year in a lab, I found that I was depressed until I started volunteering for a needle exchange program.

No one I was super close to died or even got sick. There wasn't some big cathartic event, other than living in San Francisco in the early 1990s, that kept me going. I just kept thinking about AIDS because I kept thinking about AIDS, even though there would have been a lot of other alternative paths for me in which I probably could have done greater good for a greater number of people. So it's not like I'm claiming a moral high ground. I'm just observing the persistence of a theme. It is what it is.

Given that I have kept doing this work, kept connecting myself to this epidemic, I'm glad I got out in the drizzle and walked. Not for my hospital. And only partly because of the AIDS Action Committee--since the money raised was raised whether or not I walked, and they probably could have given my tote bag to encourage one of their nutrition clients to go to the farmer's market or something.

Mainly, I was glad to walk because those little clusters of families with their team t-shirts deserve to have lots of people around them when they gather together to remember someone now gone. It also gave me a couple of hours to think about how long this epidemic has kept pulling me back towards it, for reasons I don't entirely understand.

If you want to give some money to the AIDS Action Committee--they're good people. I know them personally because they're getting food and other services for one of my patients who's really sick, and a few years ago they got me down to the statehouse to help lobby for their (successful) effort to decriminalize syringes and make clean needles available in pharmacies in our state. They do a lot of other great stuff too. Here's the link to my AIDS Walk fundraising page.

And: thanks so much to that small but sweet group of friends and family who donated--it means a lot to me. It's true that because of your donations, I qualified for a tote bag; but more importantly, my patient will get some food. And trust me: he needs it.


Lab Coats said...

Nice posting. Thank's for sharing with us

Anonymous said...

The tote bag is for you. Every time you take it to the Farmers' Market or the grocery store, you remember why you walked. You identify with the cause. Other people see you and identify you with the cause. It's ok to keep the prize, as long as you take it out and use it as it was intended to be used.

the man from Utz said...

It sounds like you've received "A Call" to your work, and that you listen to the call. It is sometimes a long and confusing road that a call leads us along, but other roads are often dead ends. We question ourselves sometimes, and rarely receive useful answers, but to the people you benefit the reasons are clear.

Thanks for walking.

Texaco said...

Thanks for your continuing support and the opportunity to help.

Joe Wright said...

OK, OK, now I feel like I must have been fishing for people to say nice things! But, thanks for reading. j