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Battle Front Angels: HIV/AIDS Heroines of the '80s and '90s

November 15, 2012

Internet links shown in these posts are designed to provide more detailed information if required.

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Then there was Maureen Cassidy, of Fairfield, who started a Buddy Program, matching around a hundred volunteers with AIDS patients in her area. She was a successful cosmetics executive who gave up her job and salary to help others in need. It stemmed from losing friends and even her brother to the condition but her driving motive was something that we need so much more of today.

"I walked into a clothing store recently and a woman inside said she couldn't believe I worked with people with AIDS," Ms. Cassidy said. "She said, 'Aren't you scared of getting AIDS?'" Ms. Cassidy said she used each confrontation as an opportunity to educate people about AIDS.

Such was her influence that doctors, business professionals, elderly people and housewives saw the bigger picture and willingly volunteered when others buried their heads in the sand.

"What bothers me most is how AIDS is still such a stigma -- to see somebody who is a kind, warm person, be treated badly by their families," Ms. Cassidy said. "All of a sudden they get this disease and they're treated like lepers and it's very difficult to watch that." She spoke of a young woman with AIDS whose parents moved her to a back bedroom in their home and served her with paper plates and plastic spoons and forks. "I'm always amazed at how many people are still terrified."

Now that is something that has barely changed in many places in the years since she said that in 1989.

More Information: Woman Gives Up Career to Help AIDS Patients

Another special person of the times was Margaret Bausch, a nursing student who decided she wanted to work on an AIDS ward in 1990.

"I'm gay and I wanted to put back into the community, you know?" she said.

After she'd graduated in 1991, she asked to be transferred to the HIV/AIDS unit at the nearby St. Joseph's Hospital. Now this was a special organisation in itself in that it was founded and run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Bear in mind that this was a traditional Catholic organisation and charity. This was still a big deal in those days, and the fact that a Catholic institution would go out of its way to be supportive of AIDS patients helped others to overcome prejudice.

"The Daughters of Charity were actually very, very supportive of our mission there," Bausch said. "In fact, they sponsored us in the Gay Pride Parade twice. Once, we had T-shirts made up that had the big AIDS ribbon on the front and it said, 'St. Joseph Hospital -- Caring for Our Community' on the back."

Margaret worked amongst many other lesbian colleagues whose names may be forgotten, so symbolises a significant number of selfless and generous people. However, in 2001, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to stop working at St. Joseph's, just as the newer HIV drug regimes were emerging. The irony of her illness was not lost on her because it was her own T cells that were attacking her nervous system to produce MS. Her story is fascinating and I can't improve on her own words but it's definitely worth following the link that follows to read more about her life.

So how did she cope? "I ate and drank a lot," she said, laughing, but then grew quiet. "It was hard. I mean, we used to have a calendar and we'd write the names down of people when they passed away, you know? Sometimes, there were some months where we'd know, like, 50 or 100 people that died. It gives you kind of a perspective about quality versus quantity of life. And I wouldn't say you ever get blasé about death, but you really do come to understand that being dead isn't the worse thing -- that there are worse things than being dead. It was hard."

More Information: Margaret Bausch: HIV/AIDS Nurse Reflects on a Life of Caring

Then there was Joanne James, who was the head nurse of one of the first AIDS wards at the Harper Hospital in Detroit. She along with other nameless colleagues worked long and hard to create a support network for the nurses themselves. Hospital administrators and the public at large often underestimated the effects on the nursing staff, who were caring for patients who were more often than not going to suffer terribly and then eventually die. Joanne James recognised that in order to provide better care on the wards, the nurses needed to be supported and cared for themselves. The psychological effects of so much suffering must have been devastating at times. Her groups became part of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care organisation; and since her death, a "Joanne James Award" is presented annually to someone who has made a significant contribution to the HIV community.

More Information: Association of Nurses in AIDS Care Chapter Histories: Southeastern Michigan Chapter

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