Virus Visions. Does the Past Repeat?
today at 6:27 am
I am sitting in our sunroom, beams of light pouring through the jalousie windows. Our cat and a visiting pup alternate turns lying in the sun, neither willing to share space with the other. It is a crystal clear and brilliant day. I should be outside enjoying it before the crushing heat returns. But my stomach has been doing flip-flops for the last 24 hours or so, and I feel more comfortable on the sofa, book in hand, gazing out onto the street.
Barb designed this room for days like today; one set of windows facing our backyard; the second opening onto the pond, where only one of four of our newly hatched cygnets has survived the demonic snapping turtles in the water below; the final set of windows giving a view of the street, where we live at the back end of the loop the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare makes as it meanders through the subdivision.
I can people-watch unseen as I flip the pages of my novel. It’s a day made for strolling and all our neighbors, nearly homogenous in their ethnicity, are out. Many proceed as family units–mom and dad on bikes, baby in an attached carrier, young daughters struggling to keep up astride their two-wheelers, bouncing side-to-side on the training wheels. Pairs of neighborly couples stride along, 6-foot distances narrowing, then swelling again as someone remembers. In-line skaters, dog walkers, and loud phone chatters weave in and out to complete the tapestry.
The novel beside me is one that Barb gave to me from her stack on her nightstand after I finished reading the last book in my library pile. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai alternates between modern-day Paris and Chicago in the 1980’s, the Chicago scenes taking place in an area that would become known as Boystown. It is the story of a great pandemic, though the disease at the story’s center is not COVID-19, the virus is not SARS-CoV-2.
It was early in my medical career when we first became aware of a deadly illness that was striking gay men with the unusual disease combination of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia. Medically, it struck home. I had given a presentation on KS in med school and pneumocystis was the organism that had ended my father-in-law’s battle with leukemia.
I remember the heated arguments over whether or not this disease, soon to be named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, was an infectious disease and if so what the transmitting agent could be. Then came the discovery of a virus, originally titled HTLV-III and eventually renamed HIV. Methods of transmission were identified. Rock Hudson became a symbol, Ryan White a hero.
To protect ourselves in the morgue we began wearing chain mail gloves while doing autopsies, at least until my Laboratory Director discovered a unique and clever way to avoid our performing post-mortem exams on known AIDS cases. He told the hospital medical staff that we pathologists would be glad to do those autopsies, as long as the clinicians “scrubbed in” and pointed out the areas in which they had the greatest concern. Autopsy requests melted away just like the T-lymphocytes that had disappeared under the onslaught of the virus.
I recall the controversy over blood testing for the disease, as well as the emergence of AZT, the first drug to have some success in slowing down the progression of AIDS. And I remember the lost medical school classmates, members of a repressed class that was decimated.
And now, as BLM reminds us, once again a repressed class is being decimated, both by a virus and by inequality. It is time to move beyond looking out the window. For me, it will be in a medical context. How about for you?
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