Longform

DENVER OR BUSTED

part 2 of 2
For all Georgia's boundless patience and energy, there was one type of patient she couldn't warm up to. In the early Eighties DGH had begun seeing its first people with what the medical communities on the East and West coasts were calling the "gay disease." By 1984 it had a new name: AIDS. But not a lot was known about the disease, and medical personnel were afraid to treat its victims for fear that they, too, would contact it.

There was another reason for Georgia's reluctance. The disease was mostly confined to intravenous drug abusers and young homosexual men. Despite her years in Denver General's emergency room, Georgia was still a good Catholic girl, and she neither understood nor condoned the gay lifestyle. This loathsome disease seemed a punishment for immorality.

One night a young man came into the emergency room and coughed up a black, evil-looking substance. AIDS, someone said; the black stuff might even be tissue from his lungs. Repulsed, Georgia swore she would give up nursing before she would care for patients with the disease.

It was years before the humor and life-embracing flamboyance of a young homosexual named Theo changed her mind. They met at a coffeehouse on Colfax. Georgia was trying to counsel young street kids when he came in, newly arrived from California and looking for a friend.

Theo was in his early thirties, funny and theatrical--he had worked in the theater in California. He was bright and loved music, and he charmed Georgia with his stories about life in Hollywood. Theo taught her that homosexuality had a lot less to do with genitalia than with following one's heart. He started attending Georgia's church, and she looked forward to seeing him.

Georgia stayed in Denver General's emergency room for seven years. By 1989 the job was beginning to take its toll--and she no longer had singing with the symphony as an outlet for her stress, because she couldn't take the time away from the people who needed her. As the streets grew meaner, the pace got crazier. Police officers were being shot. She was on duty the night a paramedic called over the radio to say that he, too, had just been hit by a bullet. The violence compounded her old fears. She had burned out--and she knew it.

One afternoon Georgia received a call from Dr. Adam Myers, who asked if she would come see him in his DGH office. When she arrived, he got right to the point: He'd received a large federal grant to start a clinic for patients with AIDS, and the grant included funding for a nurse to work in both the cancer and HIV clinics.

But he was having a difficult time finding anyone willing to accept the job, Myers told Georgia. He'd heard a lot about her and wanted to know: Would she take it?

Georgia asked for time to consider the offer. Her whole career had been spent trying to make people well; now she was being asked to nurse people who would never be well again. Still, she knew she really didn't have a choice: These people needed her. She called Myers and took the job.

At about the same time, a friend asked Georgia if she wanted to go in on a house in Lakewood. Again she hesitated; technically, this could violate the Denver residency rule. But ever since the assault, she hadn't felt at home in Denver. And she knew that other nurses, doctors and administrators had broken the rule without being punished.

She agreed to help buy the house. But because she didn't want to lie about her address, she also rented an apartment in Denver and went out of her way to conduct all of her business within the city's borders. She voted in Denver, got her driver's and nursing licenses in Denver, even served on a Denver jury. The church she attended was a Denver church, and all her outreach work was in Denver. She felt she was in compliance with the spirit of the rule that called for employees to be committed to the city in which they worked. And at work, Georgia was more committed than ever. In the emergency room she'd always felt needed--but while ministering to patients with AIDS and cancer, she knew she had found her true calling. These people needed someone who could take care of not just their bodies but--with hugs and attention--their souls as well.

Tam Skinner was tall, thin and intellectual. A cellist with a chamber group, he was among the first Denver General patients to be treated with interferon for his Kaposi's sarcoma, a formerly benign skin cancer that turned deadly when infecting AIDS patients like himself. Georgia met Tam and his friend Brent Berry, who took care of him, at the clinic. The two had grown up in Iowa, childhood friends who became lovers. They'd parted ways in the late Seventies but had come together again when Brent learned that Tam had AIDS.

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Steve Jackson