Gloria Reuben
Gloria Reuben

Another installment in the series marking the 30th anniversary of the U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"You know, I think it's more vital that we talk about what's going on now," the actress Gloria Reuben says with slightly impatient amusement. But in recalling the part she played of physician assistant Jeanie Boulet -- as she says, "the first and only regular role on a network television show that was HIV positive" -- she remains astounded. Reuben started playing Boulet in 1995 on the award-winning NBC television series ER, and yet more than 15 years later, no other recurring HIV-positive role has shown up on American TV.

An Opportunity to Broaden the Conversation

Boulet's old stethoscope wasn't exactly Reuben's albatross. When ER's script called for Reuben's character to contract HIV, the twist was timely, poignant and unprecedented.

"We knew it was an opportunity to help broaden some perspectives and get people talking about HIV/AIDS," says Reuben, who recalls painstaking production efforts to reproduce the mood and science of the time.

The effort paid off. Jeanie Boulet's dilemma -- that of a health-care professional grappling with her own health crisis -- easily hooked viewers.

"I think everybody, to six degrees at the very least, had had an experience with somebody who was HIV positive," Reuben says, including herself. "Within the first few months of that first year, where Jeanie found out that she is HIV positive, then certainly the learning curve expanded."

Indeed, Reuben may have been privileged to access certain groundbreaking treatment information ahead of the general public. "We knew this combination drug therapy was in the works," she recalls, referring to the therapy of multiple protease inhibitors called HAART, or the HIV "cocktail," that became available in July 1996.

AIDS Story Lines Still Needed

"The thing I found most encouraging about doing that role was that it got people talking about the issue," Reuben says. It also thrust cast members and numerous HIV/AIDS organizations onto one another's radar. "I decided to utilize the platform of the story line to help some organizations," says Reuben, whose activism on behalf of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has taken her to South Africa. (She is also strongly involved with world environmental and climate-change issues.)

"Many things have changed since that time," Reuben admits, including for herself. She has appeared in other TV series, including NBC's Law and Order, TNT's Raising the Bar and 1-800-Missing in her native Canada. People magazine once rated her one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, and Tina Turner recruited her as backup singer for her Twenty Four Seven Tour.

However, she's dismayed by the perpetual stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, by people still failing to get tested and by the alarming "statistics in this country, particularly with young Black women."

Reuben attributes the public's decreasing sense of urgency about AIDS to apathy, denial and misreading of clinical success. "The flip side of the medications working so well," she says, "is that there's this belief that, 'Oh, well, even if I am HIV positive, I just need to take a pill and I'll be fine."

"It's all of our own individual responsibility, no question," Reuben says. But she rues the television industry's ongoing missed "opportunity to do something that potentially could have as big an impact or bigger" than her 1990s-era character.

AIDS Turning 30

Reuben was only a teenager when AIDS came to the public's attention 30 years ago. Having to measure her entire adult life against the shadow of the epidemic, she draws her optimism from the wisdom of an elderly surrogate aunt. "She once said to me, 'Where there's life, there's hope,' " Reuben says, seeming to locate the pulse of her own continued work with the Elizabeth Glaser Foundation, whose mission is to eradicate the virus in children. "Therein lies hope," she says, "if our kids stop being infected.

"In the meantime," Reuben adds, "we all have to do what we can to keep the lines of communication open between family members, between friends, between church and churchgoer. Yeah, I'm hopeful, but a lot of work still needs to be done. And I think the first step is for everybody to know their status. And that's an easy thing to do."

Reuben briefly reprised her role on ER in 2008, before the show was canceled. But given the myriad storytelling possibilities of the disease, she doesn't feel proprietary. "I'd love to pass the torch."

Or, in her case, a well-worn stethoscope.

Eric K. Washington, the author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem_, is the 1995 winner of the National Association of Black Journalists first prize for his_ Out magazine profile of AIDS activist Phill Wilson, who went on to found the Black AIDS Institute and is its current CEO.