Narrative, Advocacy and AIDS at 25
I was reminded of the power of narrative and the role of narrative in advocacy last week when I read Abraham Verghese’s beautifully written op ed piece in the New York Times on “AIDS at 25” (New York Times, June 4, 2006, not yet online as of this writing). Verghese was a young medical resident 25 years ago when AIDS struck New York. "[T]he milestones of my life and medical career -- and of thousands of other doctors like me -- have since been inextricably tied to the history of the virus,” he writes. He went on to write My Own Country about caring for—and about—people with AIDS in east Tennessee during the next decade. Today he teaches medical students not yet born in 1981 “how the metaphorical veil of shame and secrecy that traveled with this virus tainted everything; how being an AIDS doctor could distance you from other doctors, and even from friends.” Verghese’ tribute to these early sufferers from AIDS, and to those who cared for them, is a tribute all of us in the advocacy community share:
My patients taught me about courage, about bravery, about organizing for a cause, about dying for one. . . .
We became zealots for the cause of our patients, even if zeal was all we had to give. We had no cure to offer, and so we began to leave the thresholds of our medical-industrial complexes and visit our patients in their homes, at their deathbeds. Paradoxically we discovered that our presence, our promise not to desert our patients, our continued care brought about a sort of healing, by which I mean helping the patients come to terms with their illness, with their deaths, and meanwhile diminishing for them the sense of spiritual violation that any serious disease brings, none more than this one.
. . . I watched with awe as politics eclipsed science and as gay activists rattled the cages of stodgy government entities like the Food and Drug Administration, and got results.
. . . Today I see so many of us who came of age at the same time now have one foot in Africa or Asia, as if we need the kind of challenge we once faced here. It is as if we have carried the lessons of the AIDS protest group Act Up abroad, to prove that one can make a difference even in a poor country, one can find ways to pay for and distribute drugs, one can make an impact on transmission from mother to child.
. . . On my desk I keep a picture sent to me by a friend, Rick Hodes, a doctor who has spent his professional years in Ethiopia. It shows a beautiful, chubby-cheeked Ethiopian child, wearing colorful local dress, and holding in his hand a photograph of a scrawny skeleton in rags. The photograph is of his former self, taken a few months before he got the H.I.V. medications that Rick scrounged money to buy. Victories are now to be won in that fashion, one child at a time.
. . . I think perhaps that is the legacy of my patients, the legacy of the nurses and physicians' assistants and social workers who taught me so much, the legacy of people from all walks of life who toiled against AIDS when there was no hope. My students seem to know what we had to so painfully learn: the secret in the care of the patient is caring for the patient.