I was 24 in Mem­phis on one of my first rota­tions as a med­ical stu­dent. Finally away from books and learn­ing to learn in a new way. One day I was read­ing books and lis­ten­ing to lec­tures. Lit­er­ally, the next day I had a stetho­scope in my hand and I was learn­ing in the four dimen­sions of human lives. I was dis­ori­ented, relieved, scared, truly excited – pound­ing heart and short, quick breaths. The county hos­pi­tal in Mem­phis is called The Med. It is a wild ride to work there. I deliv­ered about 30 babies, scrubbed in oper­a­tions until ten at night, most nights for 3 months, saw gun­shot wounds and stab­bings at the sur­gi­cal ER called the Elvis Pres­ley Memo­r­ial Trauma Cen­ter – no kid­ding. On the med­i­cine rota­tion I met a young man, Matt, who was short of breath.

He had a weird rash, looked pale under the rash, fast heart rate. My pro­fes­sor asked him to walk across the room and we mea­sured the oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion in his blood before and after. It dropped 15% in 15 feet. Nor­mally you can‘t make it drop that much even if you try. This kid was 19. I admit­ted him, took a very long his­tory as young med­ical stu­dents usu­ally do and felt the fear in him stronger than I felt his pulse. The year was 1989.

HIV changed all our lives around 1983, my senior year in high school. I remem­ber think­ing to myself that hav­ing sex could kill me. In the 50‘s school chil­dren learned that they lived in a world that could destroy itself any time with nuclear weapons. It changed how those kids felt about things like safety. By the 60‘s they were throw­ing off every­thing about the gov­ern­ment that asked them to agree to that kind of world. HIV was a dif­fer­ent kind of insta­bil­ity. Rela­tion­ships, sex, were now unsafe. Safe sex. There is some­thing in sex that should feel a lit­tle unsafe, like look­ing over the edge of a cliff. HIV made us prac­ti­cal, methodical.

Matt got caught in the under­tow of the first set of waves that crashed into our lives with HIV. He, like thou­sands, mil­lions now, died. He was dead within 3 days. I sat with him and his fam­ily while he died. Noth­ing any­one could do, espe­cially me. He allowed me to sit with him. He was the fist per­son I saw die. His last breath lin­gered a lit­tle, the room filled with some­thing and then, like a vac­uum, it was empty. I cried, mourned. I tell Matt‘s story in grat­i­tude for the courage and wis­dom he gave me in his last, sad breaths.

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One Response to Impending

  1. Bobbi says:

    You should be required reading for all medical students…


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