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BUYING TIME PART II

part 2 of 2
The Clinic, Politics, and Wes Kennedy

By the late Eighties it was clear that the AIDS epidemic could not be dealt with as other epidemics had been in the past. Polio and tuberculosis, for example, affected people in specific ways that could be addressed by a primary physician or specialist.

AIDS, on the other hand, attacked on a variety of fronts and required the specialized skills of different members of the medical community all working in conjunction. In the course of a week, an AIDS patient might need to see a pulmonary specialist for pneumonia, an oncologist for Kaposi's, an internist for cytomegalovirus and a psychiatrist for stress or dementia.

Cohn and Judson were pushing to set up an infectious-diseases clinic. The hospital was under fire from activists who complained that as the number of AIDS patients multiplied, DGH was treating them on gurneys that lined the hallways. Finally, the two doctors were given the fifth floor of the old hospital building for their clinic. With them went nurses Gorley and Gilden.

AIDS cancer patients still were sent to the oncology division on the other side of the large hospital campus. And Myers, who personally took on all AIDS oncology cases, spent a lot of time on the phone with the doctors at the new ID clinic. With so little known about AIDS and so much distance between the two clinics that handled AIDS symptoms, it was often anybody's guess whether a patient's distress was caused by the disease itself or perhaps by a treatment.

In late 1990 the doctors met and agreed that they needed to combine as many services as possible in a single place. Myers would conduct an oncology clinic there every Monday afternoon, while other specialists would see patients in the same offices on different days.

Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Myers, a colonel in the Army Reserve, was called up. With his blessing, the AIDS oncology clinic opened, with medical fellows who had been working with Myers taking his place.

Instead of being sent to the Middle East, though, Myers was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, where he treated athletic injuries and high blood pressure and did so many Pap smears that he couldn't go into the base grocery store without half the women scattering at his approach.

In a way, it was a relief from the constant, depressing battle with AIDS. But he knew that his war was back home in Denver, where the death tolls were mounting daily.

When Myers returned to DGH six months later, the clinic was in full swing. And as the number of AIDS oncology patients continued to grow, it soon became clear that Myers couldn't see two dozen patients on a single Monday afternoon and give them any kind of care. It was decided that he would hold a second clinic on Thursdays, while more Ryan White funds paid for his replacement in the breast-cancer clinic, Dr. Marie Wood.

It seemed that the more patients he saw, the more he learned about himself as a doctor and as a witness to this tragedy. Among the flood of new AIDS oncology patients was Bob, a successful developer in an exclusive mountain community. He had a beautiful wife and two grown daughters, and he also had HIV--contracted from a homosexual lover.

Bob seemed more troubled that he'd had an affair with a man rather than the fact that he'd cheated on his wife. For Myers, that was drawing too fine a line. Although he couldn't condone promiscuity for medical and moral reasons, he realized it no longer mattered to him whether the behavior was homosexual or heterosexual. He had met too many brave young gays to think of them as dirty and evil. He had watched too many of them die.

He had found that he could dislike some--such as the patient who spit in the face of a medical student--and befriend others. His life was enriched by their talents, their humor and their grace as they worked with him to live a little longer.

Now, for Myers, the hardest part was dealing with the constant reminders of how powerless he was to save them.

The point was driven home when Wes Kennedy died. Wes was a promising young artist when he arrived at Myers's clinic in 1991 with Kaposi's in his throat. The lesions made swallowing and even breathing difficult.

With the help of radiation, then chemotherapy when that failed, Wes battled to continue working. It troubled Myers that Wes's art grew more angry and dark as his disease progressed. But it was powerful and alive.

In the summer of 1993, when it was clear that he would die soon, Wes asked Myers to keep him alive long enough for a retrospective show of his work in September. Myers said he'd try.

But Wes died in August. The next day Myers turned to the obituary section in the newspaper and read that Wes had asked his physician to keep him alive long enough so that he could attend the show, but to no avail.

The words weren't hostile, but they hurt. Myers carefully clipped the obituary and taped it to the wall of his study at home. He put it there to remind himself that he wasn't God and shouldn't delude himself into thinking he could do more against this disease than he was already doing.

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