On Scene With Bill Wilson Conquering Fear: My Response to Aids

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

I know the exact moment when confronted with the fear of contracting Aids I decided that I would not let that fear deter me from doing what was right. The occasion was a memorial service for James McCann at Metropolitan Community Church of the District of Columbia. I ended up by chance sitting next to Randy Brown who was sitting next to Jack Mitchell. Both were members of a support group that Jim McCann had also attended at the Whitman-Walker Clinic. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to attend a memorial service for someone who had the same illness they did. I had brought a handkerchief with me because I knew I was going to need one, I always cry. At one point near the beginning of the service I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there were tears just streaming down Randy’s face. My impulse was to reach into my pocket to get my handkerchief to give to Randy. As I started to pull it out of my pocket I paused as I realized tears were bodily fluids and you could get Aids from bodily fluids, but did they mean tears? Almost as quickly as that thought came, I realized that I couldn’t refuse to respond to someone in need because of my fear of Aids. So I handed Randy my handkerchief and he used it to wipe away his tears before handing it back to me. The irony was about two weeks later there was a front page story in The Washington Post that was headlined “Aids Virus Isolated in Tears.” By then it was too late to worry about it and I took on a more fatalistic approach. The damage of not being able to help someone in need was in my mind was greater than the risk of contracting Aids. I had made a conscious decision not to let fear be my dominate response to Aids.

My friend Randy Brown.

I know that others made a different decision even those within the health care profession. It resulted in the way I was treated by one phlebotomist at National Institutes of Health (NIH). I was part of a vaccine study and because they wanted to be sure I was HIV negative I had to have my blood tested once a week for about a month before getting the vaccine and then once every other week for several months more to see if the vaccine had produced the hoped for reaction.. I had become very familiar with the phlebotomy department on the first floor. On this particular day when my number was called the phlebotomist indicated I should sit next to this person she had been talking to. All the time she was sticking me and filling the necessary vials with my blood she continued her conservation with him. I was more upset by what she was saying than by the fact she was totally ignoring me. She told him that she didn’t like the rubber gloves they used in this department so she went and “stole” (her word not mine) gloves from the third floor operating room because they didn’t irritate her hands as much. After she was finished she gave me a piece of gauze to press against the wound on my arm where she had inserted the needle to draw the blood. After a few minutes she put a bandage on my arm and told me that I could go. When I lifted my arm to get my coat from the coat rack I noticed that the bandage was red from my blood. I turned back to her and said, “I’m still bleeding, I think you need to do something.” She stood there for what seemed an eternity but in reality was probably about 10 seconds. I realized, remembering what she had been telling the person seated next to me, that she had already taken her gloves off and she didn’t want to touch anything with my blood on it. I could have been there for any reason as far as she knew.

So I said, “I’ll do it, just tell me what to do to make the bleeding stop.” She handed me another piece of gauze and then bought a discard bucket over for me to put the bloody bandage in. I sat and applied pressure to my arm. This time I waited long enough to make sure it had clotted enough before I left. It made me mad that she has just stood there doing nothing while I was bleeding.

As I waited for my turn on the next visit two weeks later I hoped that I would not get the same person. But of course even though there were six or more people working I could have gotten, I got the same person. As she indicated where she wanted me to sit I said to her, “You probably don’t remember me but the last time I was here you were so busy talking to the person next to me that you sent me away before I had stopped bleeding.” She said, “I can’t be everyone’s best friend. They don’t give us time for that.” I shot back, “I don’t want you to be my best friend, I just want you to do your job.”

Author kneeling next to panel he made for John Paul Warren

You would think that people in the medical profession might be immune to fear, but you would be wrong. When my friend John Warren was in the hospital to get his medication increased, his doctor suggested that he might use the exercise bike in the physical therapy room. The first time he went there he was told that he needed a doctor’s prescription to use the physical therapy room, so his doctor wrote a prescription. Then he was told that they didn’t have enough therapists to watch wile he was using the exercise bike. Then they told him that they didn’t want him to use the therapy room because his CMV was contagious. The doctor explained that 90% of the people have CMV in their blood, so there was no way people where going to get it from John being in the room. He suggested that the next time they denied John the use of the exercise bike that John just ask that the reason and the names of the people denying him be put in writing for his lawyer. The next day he made that request and within twenty minutes the head of the physical therapy department was in his room explaining that they never had a person well enough to use the equipment unsupervised. I asked John if he thought that was true. He said it didn’t matter because he was getting to use the equipment. He did use the equipment and it really made a difference in his strength.

I don’t write this with any sort of superiority. I was familiar with the damage fear can do because for so long it was what kept me in the closet. The only thing I “chose” about my sexual orientation was to not live in fear. It was all happening at the same time because I didn’t come out to my parents until 1983.

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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