AIDS Before it Had a Name: Grace within Tragedy by da-AL


“Hope for the Future,” an earlier post by my good friend David Hunt, got me to remembering AIDS during the early 1980s. At that time, it was a mystery so dark that scientists had yet to name it. It took a while for experts to figure out how it was contracted. All anyone knew for sure was that it was deadly, most of all to gay men at their physical primes.

People in other countries called it an American disease. They talked of screening us before allowing us to visit. Some argued that gays should be segregated. Conspiracy theories abounded.

During then, I reported news for KPFK, a non-profit radio station based out of North Hollywood. At the same time, I paid my rent thanks to a ‘real’ job, while I attended college part-time and interned at CNN.

David was news editor for a lesbian and gay show at KPFK, called IMRU. Today IMRU is syndicated. It proudly boasts itself as, “The nation’s longest running Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Radio News Magazine.”

Despite my workload, David’s civil rights stories seemed far more imperative than anything I was already reporting on. After enough pestering, sometimes he allowed me to help him with his projects.

IMRU 1982There we are in the back row, David Hunt to my right. To my left, the man with the devilish grin and muscled good looks is a fellow radio host.

David Fradkin’s entertainment career began as a kid on the TV show, Romper Room. He was smart, multi-talented, and totally fun. To this day, it’s still hard to believe that AIDS took him only some years later.

David Fradkin 1982David Hunt’s post describes Robert Bland, one of the valiant first to battle AIDS. Thinking of Robert makes my eyes mist up, as much for him as for his mother. During his final months, she moved into his small apartment to nurse him through the horrible, messy, gut-wrenching end.

David Hunt 1982Months later, she appeared at my workplace. It was a car rental counter in one of Los Angeles International Airport’s terminals. Flights unloaded customers, some of them nice. A lot were drunk businessmen who would holler when their cars were five minutes late, or threaten to slug each other over who was next in line.
Employees were closely policed. During quiet times, we were prohibited from reading, socializing, and talking on the phone.

The despair in his mother’s eyes sheered away my trepidations about risking my job. I set out an extra stool for her. She stayed for my entire eight-hour shift, desperate to talk to anyone who had known her son.

Eventually, David and I opened a video production company. Later in his post, he refers to some of the HIV infected kids we featured in a video, along with professionals from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles on AIDS. HIV is the virus that lowers the immune system. AIDS is the final stages. We interviewed scores of patients, professionals, and volunteers. Every single one fought hard to conquer AIDS. One was a woman whose husband, a drug user, had died of it. She lovingly cared for him until his last breath. He had infected her and their infant.

Another mother adopted two small children, a boy and a girl, whose biological mothers had died of AIDS. Both kids were charmers, a shy girl with pink ribbons in her hair, and a rambunctious boy with a fierce hug.  The new mom sobbed inconsolably through many nights. Lest her husband miss work from lack of sleep, he took up residence on their couch.

Back then, blood donations weren’t screened. A young boy we interviewed had hemophilia. He was infected as a result of a blood transfusion. His parents feared that people at his school would be awful to him. Was it health and social challenges that matured him beyond his real age of about twelve? That made him and his family so caring and wise?

Fortunately, AIDS research has made great strides. It’s become rare for kids to die of it. Still, it remains a tragedy. At such times, grace is most evident. I was fortunate to meet those early AIDS fighters, each of them full of wanting to live, to love, and to give.

David Hunt’s blog
More on the early days of AIDS
KPFK
IMRU
More on the difference between HIV and AIDS
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
Libraries still carry the video
Classroom lesson plan we wrote for the video
Ways to end AIDS

Guest Blog Post: “Hope for the Future,” in David Hunt’s exact words


Dear friend and fellow blogger (David Hunt) allowed me (da-AL) to share some of his writing with you …

Thirty-five years ago this month the CDC warned about a troubling outbreak of Pneumocystis pneumonia in five otherwise healthy young, gay men in California. Later that summer, when I reported on the outbreak for radio station KPFK, the number of cases had grown to 41, including 6 in California and 20 in New York. And, in addition to the rare form of pneumonia, gay men were starting to come down with a rare form of cancer and other opportunistic infections. By the end of the year, this new disease, later called AIDS, would claim 121 lives.

Clinical immunologist Joseph Church at Children’s Hospital L.A. with a young HIV-positive patient in 1992. From “Hope for the Future,” produced by David Hunt and Daal Praderas.
Clinical immunologist Joseph Church at Children’s Hospital L.A. with a young HIV-positive patient in 1992. From “Hope for the Future,” produced by David Hunt and Daal Praderas.

I don’t suppose anyone who covered the early years of the AIDS epidemic came away untouched. I’ll never forget Robert Bland’s soft brown eyes and calm determination to serve as “an AIDS guinea pig,” even as he acknowledged that a cure would surely come long after his own death. Or the button imprinted with the defiant message “I Will Survive” that San Francisco AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell proudly wore right up until his death in 1984. Or the scathing criticism gay journalist Randy Shilts leveled at bathhouse owners who refused to provide their customers with condoms or educational materials. Courage, defiance and anger; like the stages of grief, these came to symbolize for me the stages of AIDS activism. To be honest, fear was there, too, just below the surface.

Expanding Epidemic

By the time I began working as a video producer in 1985 the AIDS epidemic had expanded beyond the gay community, and now affected people of color, teens, women and even infants and children. An educational video I co-produced for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in 1992-93 told the stories of three families struggling to deal with AIDS. it featured a 12-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl (pictured above) and a baby boy. The message of the video, targeted to the parents and caregivers of children with HIV/AIDS, was not to give up hope, that new drug therapies were being tested and would soon be available. We titled the video “Hope for the Future.”

I don’t know if any of the children on the video survived long enough to benefit from the new drug cocktails that eventually made AIDS a largely manageable disease. I heard that the baby died shortly after we finished production. One thing you learn in an epidemic is to ration the amount of grief you have to handle at a given time. While I’d love to see those kids grown up and healthy, I’m not ready to face the other possibility.

If anybody’s still counting, AIDS has claimed more than 35 million lives worldwide since 1981.

David Hunt’s blog
More about the initial outbreak... and more.
Pediatric AIDS then and now.