Angels in Arkansas: My 15-Year AIDS-versary

Contributing Editor
Charles Sanchez in 2017.
522 Productions for TheBody/Remedy Health Media

I believe in angels.

Not the kind I pictured in Sunday school at St. Jerome's Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona, when I was growing up. I'm far too jaded now to believe in white-robed, feathered creatures with flowing locks and floating golden halos. As a proud fallen Catholic, I smirk at the idea of armies or choirs of heavenly hosts (although a hovering golden crown is a fabulous concept!). I'm so world-weary, even commercials for the TV show God Friended Me make me roll my eyes.

I do, however, believe in a Higher Power that is crazy about me and forgives my salty language and bawdy funny bone (funny boner?).

I was dramatically diagnosed with AIDS on Nov. 4, 2003. I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Well, I didn't say that my Higher Power had no sense of humor.) My roommate had found me on the floor of our apartment, blue from lack of oxygen. She took me to the emergency room, and three weeks later I woke up to find out that I had been suffering from pneumocystis pneumonia, histoplasmosis, and thrush, all brought on by undiagnosed HIV. My viral load was through the roof, and my T-cell count was 4. I had almost died.

But I didn't. So I can't deny the existence of a Higher Power, an Energy of the Universe, that Something Else. Something Else seems to put people in my life -- angels, if you will -- to help me along.

Some of those angels are the nurses who took care of me while I was in the hospital. Doctors may be the stars of my AIDS story, but the heroes are the nurses.

I didn't make it easy on them. I was not an easy patient. After three weeks of being in a drug-induced coma (the doctors joked that I was on "Milk of Amnesia"), I was uncomfortable, frustrated, scared -- and I was pissed. Those poor nurses got all my wrath. They took it all in stride (for the most part), and used their southern charm to smile and smooth it all over.

Besides still needing to regain strength, my issues once I woke up included not having control of my legs and my digestive system having a will of its own. I had a little plastic bedside urinal for when I had to go #1, but going #2 was a different story. I often tried to get out of bed on my own; I desperately desired basic bathroom privacy. The nurses would tell me to call for them, but I wanted to be independent. It was humiliating to have to ask for help to go to the potty. I'd try to get out of bed, and the nurses would find me collapsed on the floor.

"Mr. Sanchez," the nurses would twang, "just go in the bedpan in the bed and we'll clean you up. Darlin'," they'd add, "that's our job."

But I wanted none of it. One of my most brilliant getting-out-of-bed plans involved angling the electric hospital bed to such a degree that (my addled brain thought) I could simply stand up. It didn't work. The bed angled up all right, and I slid right down the sheeted slope, landing with a thump in a lump.

One night, I couldn't hold anything in and had an explosive ass quake all over the bed. Like, #1, #2, all the way to #27. Mortified, I could do nothing but call the nurse.

That night, the overnight nurse was a big, husky, sassy African-American man named Anthony. He cheerfully greeted me, and I tearfully answered. I was crying and covered in shit.

"Oh, darlin', darlin'," Anthony cooed. "Darlin', don't you worry, Anthony's here to help ya." He lifted me off of the bed and put me onto a blanket on the floor.

"I hate this!" I pouted. "I feel so pathetic. Christ!"

"I know, honey. Just let it out, darlin'," Anthony said. I was lying on the floor crying as Anthony cleaned the runny crap out of the crevices of my nethers. He let me cry for a while as he cleaned me. "Oh, darlin', darlin'. Shhhhh," he said.

Then he said, "You know what I think?" He smiled. "I think the Lord is purgin' ya. He's taking everything bad that you've been through, everything that's ever happened in your life, and getting it out so you can be clean and new for him. I think he's got plans for ya, and ya just have to wait to find out what they are. Yeah, he's purgin' ya."

Then Anthony put warm pajamas on me, changed the sheets and tucked me into the clean warm bed. He rubbed my forehead gently and whispered, "I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Sanchez. You pray a little bit before you go to sleep. The Lord's got plans for ya. He does."

I got out of the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, the best Thanksgiving of my life. As I was being wheeled out of the hospital, the nurses on my floor all smiled and wished me well. Anthony stopped me and said, "Ya look good, Mr. Sanchez. Ya look real good." He winked and said, "Take care of yourself, sweetie."

And this year, 15 years later, I think of Anthony's prediction, that God had plans for me. My life today is way beyond what I could have imagined for myself. I look back on those people who took care of me -- those amazing nurses -- and I get a little verklempt. How miraculous that experience truly was, and how amazing those generous, spirited nurses were.

They had no wings or floating crowns, but they were angels, to be sure.