September 15, 1994--Denver General Hospital
Dr. Adam Myers picks a surgical mask off the wall outside an isolation room on the ninth floor. Placing it over his mouth and nose and smoothing his short, silver-gray hair, he knocks on the door and enters.
The mask is to protect the heavyset young man propped up on the bed, not the doctor. This is 1994, and the medical community now knows you can't get AIDS by inhaling the virus that causes it. But for someone with an immune system as compromised as this patient's, even the lowly cold bug can prove deadly.
When Myers walks in, Brad is looking out the window. The sky is blue and clear, and a hint of autumn chills the air, although Brad, to his great regret, cannot feel it. He is 36 years old. And he is dying.
Still, he smiles when he sees his visitor.
"Hi, Brad. How are you feeling?" asks Myers. The lines around his blue eyes reveal that he, too, is smiling beneath the mask. He likes Brad, one of his longest-living patients from Denver General Hospital's HIV clinic, where Myers heads the oncology unit.
"Oh, hi, Dr. Myers," Brad says, then shrugs. "I've been better."
As he says this, he shakes and shivers despite the blankets and bright red sweatsuit he wears. His lips are pale blue and stretched thin over his chattering teeth. His breathing labors even with the tubes that run up his nose supplying oxygen.
He looks as though he lost a fight and lost it badly. A purple stain covers the right side of his face, spreading like spilled Kool-Aid beneath his dark, mussed beard and hair. His nose is the same grape color, and a red circle beneath his right eye completes the image of a beaten man. The discoloration is caused by a confused and leaky tangle of blood vessels that feed the tumors of his Kaposi's sarcoma, a formerly mild-mannered skin cancer that feasts on people with AIDS.
Myers isn't here to treat Brad for the Kaposi's, though. He faces far more imminent dangers: a dangerously low white blood count called neutropenia and a troubling cough he developed a few days earlier that sounds suspiciously like pneumonia.
Treatment now consists of keeping Brad pumped full of the antibiotics and fresh blood that drip from the plastic bags hanging from a metal post next to his bed and down through the tubes that lead to the intravenous needles in his arms.
It will be up to Brad to win this round. And even if he does, they both know it won't be for long. Not long at all.
Enormous medical strides have been made in the ten years since the mysterious killer of gay men and drug addicts was identified as a virus: the human immunodeficiency virus. But those gains have only been enough to win individual skirmishes with the host of opportunistic infections that do the dirty work after the virus has destroyed the body's immune system. Doctors like Myers can only prolong the inevitable.
For there is no answer to the ultimate question posed by AIDS: How do you stop it from eventually killing its victims? Whenever medical science finds a way to knock out one antagonist, another leaps up to take its place.
Brad has cheated death longer than anyone dared hope. But soon there will be nothing that Myers can do.
Aware of death's approach, Brad has been making final preparations and saying his farewells. He tells Myers about a recent trip to Atlantic City where he rendezvoused with four old high school friends from Indiana.
None of his friends was gay, none had had much exposure to anyone close to them suffering from AIDS. They hadn't even seen each other in fourteen, maybe fifteen years. Yet each dropped his busy schedule and left his family when Brad called and asked if they could take one last trip together.
They gambled and talked about the old days and old friends, and even went on a deep-sea fishing trip off the Jersey coast one night. They had a glorious time, Brad says, although he spent most of the evening laying on a bunk, too weak and seasick to join the fishermen. It was enough to hear their voices shouting and laughing...to remember when they were all young and strong and looking forward to a long life.
As Brad tells Myers about his adventure, he stops often to cough--a deep, liquid sound. The more he talks, the more he coughs. The purple splotches turn darker and the unblemished portions of his face flush red under the strain.
Myers counsels him to talk slower or not at all to conserve his strength. But Brad continues, rushing the words between coughing fits. There is so much to say, so little time left to say it.