A hospital, any hospital, is a grim place, full of the smells of sickness and antiseptic, stale air, pale faces, hushed voices and old people. Lots of old people. Recently, however, at hospitals like Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Los Angeles, a new group of patients has appeared. They are men in their 20s and 30s, wan and fragile, short of breath and just barely clinging to life.
"I'm very scared to die such a young man. I'd like a little more time," says a 28-year-old patient. He is waiting for the results of tests that will determine if his recent exhaustion, bouts of fever and severe headaches are what he and his doctors fear it is: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The man is not gay. He is married and the father of two children. But he readily admits to a life of promiscuity and a history of many liaisons with prostitutes. "I lived in the fast lane," he confesses. "If only God will give me a break . . ."
Three floors down, another, even younger man goes through the same interminable wait. Jorge, 23, a homosexual, was told by doctors that he probably does have AIDS; then he was informed that the test results were ambiguous. "My mind has been going 200 miles an hour," he says. His eyes illustrate his point, darting around the room; his hands fly in all directions. "When you are close to knowing you are going to die, even a glass of water is very meaningful. I always want to remember how it felt. I am trying to understand why we die. Trying to get used to the idea and accept it."
Scenes such as these, eerie and unnatural though they may seem, are being played out in hospitals around the country as some 6,000 people--most of them young and, until recently, healthy--struggle with the idea and the painful reality of dying of AIDS. During the past four years, an equal number of AIDS victims have already succumbed.
By early this year, most Americans had become aware of AIDS, conscious of a trickle of news about a disease that was threatening homosexuals and drug addicts. AIDS, the experts said, was spreading rapidly. The number of cases was increasing geometrically, doubling every ten months, and the threat to heterosexuals appeared to be growing. But it was the shocking news two weeks ago of Actor Rock Hudson's illness that finally catapulted AIDS out of the closet, transforming it overnight from someone else's problem, a "gay plague," to a cause of international alarm. AIDS was suddenly a front-page disease, the lead item on the evening news and a frequent topic on TV talk shows. There seemed no end to the reports:
Rock Hudson was flown home to Los Angeles from France early last Tuesday and transferred on a stretcher to a waiting helicopter, which took him to UCLA Medical Center in Westwood for further medical treatment. Lester Maddox, former Governor of Georgia, was undergoing tests out of fear that he might have received the virus that causes AIDS from contaminated blood serum prescribed by a controversial cancer clinic in the Bahamas. At a New York City television station, technicians announced that they would not work in the studio during a scheduled live interview with an AIDS patient. The interview was dropped. Federal scientists announced that screening tests being used at blood banks around the country have been "highly successful" in eliminating the AIDS virus from the nation's blood supply. In Kokomo, Ind., a 13-year-old hemophiliac was denied permission to attend the local middle school because he has AIDS.
See pictures of the fight against AIDS.