Sam was the first, and at his death, the only physician in Bartow County in Georgia who would treat people with HIV. In fact, in the early nineties, he notified the medical community there that he would take anyone who had HIV. Many of his patients had no medical insurance or were not yet approved for Medicare or Medicaid. This didn't matter to Sam. He saw anyone who was sick. A third generation doctor, Sam abundantly gave back to his community. In the last few years, he had opened a free clinic for the growing Hispanic community in Bartow County. Most patients had no health insurance and I suspect some were undocumented. Again, this didn't matter to Sam. He saw a need and found a way to meet it. He also made two trips to Benin, Africa to bring badly needed health care to prisoners, many of whom were on death row. He was the first American physician to be allowed to do this by the Benin government. Sam raised the needed funds and bought the necessary medications to treat these prisoners.
Sam impacted my life as well. He was the physician who treated my partner, Geoffrey, when he suddenly discovered his health insurance no longer paid for medications and limited his choice of health care providers. Sam and Geoffrey often spent an hour or more discussing HIV and the developing treatments of the time. Sam sat with the family and me as Geoffrey died. He then attended Geoffrey's memorial service. In fact, over the years, he attended a number of memorial services for people who died of AIDS.
Dr. Howell served on the Board of Directors of Bartow AIDS Alliance, a small AIDS service organization in Northwest Georgia. He was our medical expert and gave his time freely to this small but vital organization. Suicide has always been one of my hot buttons, and not because I think it is "sinful." It just makes me feel inadequate. Like most of us, I always ask myself if I could have done or said something that might have helped this person make another choice.
In Sam's case, I believe he gave and gave until he had no more to give. He, like so many of us who are caregivers, couldn't ask for the help he needed. We caregivers think we must be stoic and the epitome of strength and courage. Somehow we believe (or have been taught) that we are supposed to be above pain and fear. In this deception, we have allowed ourselves to be placed atop a slippery slope from which we are bound to fall. The truth is none of us can continue to fight this battle against HIV/AIDS without suffering from some fatigue. We are human and with that comes feelings, emotions and yes, fear.
I am someone who has to make meaning out of those things that confound me. As I struggle to make meaning out of Sam's death, I can only come up with one thought and that is we need to tend one another better. On her new CD, When A Woman Loves, Patti LaBelle has a song, "If I Was A River." One line from this selection says:
"If I was the sun, I would shine my light to light your world.
If I was the rain, I would wash your tears away.
I'd keep your world bright, be your light in the night.
If I was the sky, I would rain down love into your life."
We need to be safe harbors for each other. We need to find ways to ask for help when things just get too heavy to carry alone. We are in this life and this battle against HIV/AIDS together. None of us should have to go it alone. Look around you, is there someone you admire -- a doctor or a leader in the community -- who seemingly has it all together all the time? Is there someway you can let them know how much you appreciate all they have done? Is there someway you can be a source of encouragement to them? It is too late for me to do this for Sam Howell. My consolation is that I believe there were many friends and former patients who greeted him on the Other Side saying, "thank you." I believe he is at peace now. He is missed. Go easy, Sam.