Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 10 of 27

Immune deficiencies and system collapses were not new to medicine: Some people are born with compromised immune systems; others develop problems from poor nutrition or drug use; cancer patients often had to be concerned about lowered immunity to disease because chemotherapy drugs often killed off the parts of the immune system that fight disease.

The men from San Francisco described a different phenomenon, one that seemed limited to the gay population and was killing what had otherwise been relatively young and healthy men. The particularly nasty way they died was also shocking. The victims had developed incredible fungal infections in their throats and literally choked to death.

The stories frightened Gourley. As a nurse, he knew that the fungus they were talking about -- candida -- was present in the mouths of everyone. It sometimes got out of control and caused "thrush," mostly in children, sometimes accompanied by painful sores in the mouth. But it was easily treated and not dangerous. Something was terribly out of balance with an immune system that allowed it to take over to the point where it killed.

He wondered if this new pestilence would, like hepatitis B, eventually be traced back to the bathhouse scene. He couldn't shake an image that stayed with him for the rest of the gathering -- a vision of dark clouds hanging on the horizon.

Still, everyone thought the gathering was a great success. It delighted Hay, who thought that at long last, his ideas might come to fruition. The morning everybody left, they were already talking about the next Spiritual Gathering of Radical Fairies. Even the cops showing up didn't dampen the enthusiasm of those still there, especially when the officers accepted Gourley's promise that they were all leaving anyway and went on their way.

When he arrived home, there was still a considerable number of people, including Hay, hanging out at his house. Gourley was talking with a group of them on the front lawn when someone yelled out of the house that there was a telephone call for him.

It was his mother. His father was in the hospital, dying. Two months earlier, his father had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor but the doctors had given him six, maybe seven more months to live; there was supposed to have been time for goodbyes. Now it was too late. By morning, his father was dead. Gourley spent the day in tears. His father was only 63. He'd been a good man, the sort of man who'd do anything to help a neighbor or someone in need, loyal to his friends and absolutely devoted to his church. It wasn't fair.

The men at his home -- Gorman, Walker, Hay, Offutt, Nash and others -- now came to his aid, forming a healing circle around him as he grieved. They talked about their fathers and what they'd meant in their lives, comforting and supporting Gourley. Before too long, some of these men would be gone, too.

The patient on the intensive-care unit at University Hospital was a young Southeast Asian man. He was already so ill that he was largely comatose and breathing only with the aid of a ventilator tube. Language differences reduced what little opportunity there was for Gourley and the other nurses to interact with him in the few days he was on their floor.

The young man was suffering from an unusually overwhelming bout of pneumonia: His immune system had apparently collapsed, allowing the pneumonia to take over. But Gourley didn't connect his patient's difficulties with the immune-system problems he'd heard about at the gathering.

It was apparent that the young man had given up the struggle and was now only waiting for the end. That came quickly one evening.

For those in the medical profession, death was failure. This time, however, there was a strange sort of beauty that followed the young man's demise. He was a Buddhist, adhering to a religion that places a great deal of importance on the moments surrounding the time of death. When he died, his female relatives -- his sisters, his mother and grandmother -- asked permission to observe the time according to their way.

Normally, it fell to nurses to quickly remove all the tubes and needles and get the body down to the morgue to free the bed space and remove the evidence of failure as soon as possible. However, it was a quiet night in the unit and there was no reason to rush, so permission was granted.

Another female relative soon arrived carrying a bundle of items Gourley learned were incense, flowers and oils. Gourley removed the tubes. Then the women took over, gently washing the dead man's body, anointing it with strongly scented oils that reminded Gourley of gardenias. When they finished, they sat for a couple of hours, praying in low voices. Finally, they were ready to leave.

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Steve Jackson