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.