It has been some months at least since I have quoted Grateful Dead lyrics in one of my written pieces here so I think it’s about time. A line from one of their classic songs, Uncle John’s Band – a tune by the way covered by the Indigo Girls, states “all I really want to know is are you kind”. If I address “reputation” from a personal perspective I would most want to be known and remembered for being kind.
While watching a 60 Minutes piece last night that featured a few of the Dallas nurses who cared for Mr. Duncan the first Ebola patient in the U.S. I was actually moved to tears by their genuine empathy and kindness toward this man who was dying a horrifying death while at the same time at considerable risk of infection themselves. As a nurse myself I can attest to the fact that while we are not necessarily immune to the sight of human suffering we are not often easily shocked either. This disease apparently is an exception to that rule. Large amounts of human secretions are often part of the game with nursing in certain settings. Ebola though seems to take that to a whole new level most often in the form of voluminous amounts of vomit and diarrhea. In the end stages of the disease even small droplets of these secretions are teaming with literally millions and millions of viral particles and it only takes one to pass it on.
They interviewed four nurses and all four seemed to exude genuine kindness but I was most impressed with an African American woman and a portly man with a definite and beautiful fey-air about him. Though not the case anymore gay men were at one time a preponderance of the male nursing population and we are still quite well represented. I will remember these nurses not so much for their bravery but their dignified and uncompromising acts of human kindness, wiping his tears and holding his hand albeit through multiple layers of protective gear among many such acts in his last days. I would like to have the epithet “he was a kind queen” attached to my tombstone or rather an urn full of my ashes before they get scattered in San Francisco bay.
I suppose there was a time in my distant past when I did not want the rather large “queer’ part of my being to be sullying my reputation in anyway. I do think though I was lucky and got over that one quickly. One sort of throws caution to the wind in that regard when you enter certain health care professions and nursing in particular as a male in the 1970’s. I was probably at my most flamboyant professionally in the 1970’s and I am sure had the “reputation” as being the flaming homo nurse. Only once though in 40 years of nursing, when working ICU, did a patient openly verbalize that he didn’t want the “queer” touching him. My co-workers were much more upset about this than I was at the time and it’s probably safe to say that the amount of kindness directed this man’s way may have been severely curtailed during his intensive care stay. Efficient and appropriate medical care does not necessitate kindness but it sure goes down a lot easier with that in the mix.
As I alluded to I was quite out of the closet during both nursing school and on the job in the 1970’s. I think my ‘homosexual-reputation’ if you will was solidly cemented one night in the ICU at University Hospital when I had just returned from recovering from a bout of hepatitis. Hepatitis was being discussed by a group of us including some docs and folks were speculating whether or not I may have gotten the hepatitis on the job, something not uncommon for nurses in those days before the advent of “universal precautions” and good hepatitis vaccines. As I recall without missing a beat I quite flippantly said that it was much more likely I was infected at the Empire Bathes with my legs in the air. That was the end of that discussion.
As Andy Warhol so famously said everyone gets at least 15 minutes of fame, which I suppose you could say, then becomes a significant part of his or her reputation. For me personally though I certainly hope that is not the case. In early 2000 a writer with Westword came to Denver Health wanting to do a piece on the current state of the AIDS epidemic. I had always shunned the press wanting to do AIDS pieces because they so seldom got it right and what could be worse for one’s ‘reputation” than to be grossly misquoted. The reporter, a fellow named Steve Jackson, was a frequent freelance contributor to the paper often doing long feature pieces. He apparently became bored with the usual AIDS talking heads, mostly docs, at Public Health and was steered in my direction by someone in the building. He and I actually hit it off having some sort of Grateful Dead connection as I seem to recall and I spent quite a few hours telling him my story.
A long story short I became the entire focus of the piece and wound up on the cover of the next issue. My own fifteen minutes of fame if you will. The piece was insufferably long as it appeared in print and I was still the case after the editor, Patty Calhoun, had cut a full third of it before publication. I have never posted it to my web site in part because I found it to be embarrassing, not because it affected my reputation at all but it really seemed to focus on my own personal drama in a very over the top fashion. If any good came out of it though I hoped it might have persuaded some folks at risk to finally get tested and get on meds. I was, as was graphically laid out in the piece, probably twenty years into my own HIV infection and still walking, talking, working full-time and posing for Westword cover stories.
One might think, and I suppose I did too, that such exposure would have major repercussions but it actually had virtually none. For one thing it was too long for most folks to get through and secondly I attribute this lack of fallout to the strength of coming out. If all your secrets are already out their in your personal and work circles and most folks are already bored with the old queen’s story and simply adding a few thousand more Westword readers to that mix doesn’t much effect one’s life or reputation and it did not.
In fact the response at least that blew back to me was quite muted. Oh a few mostly gay positive men came up to me in person and were very supportive but most responses ranged from “oh is he still alive” to my personal favorite “I thought they only put convicted felons on the cover of Westword”.
The lesson for me seems quite obvious. One’s reputation hopefully is not in anyway significantly influenced by any particular 15 minutes of fame but rather by a lifetime of being kind or at least trying to be to all you encounter. In that respect I am great believer in Karma and what goes around eventually, despite frequent bumps in the road, comes around.