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The issue of whether or not AIDS can be transmitted through saliva remains medically unresolved and a focus of fear. Firemen around the country have refused to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to AIDS patients and often to gay men in general. In New York City and Los Angeles County, fire departments are providing special mouthpieces and other equipment to permit rescue without oral contact. New York State's department of corrections is providing bite-proof, scratch-proof suits to officers guarding infected inmates.
AIDS victims are treated like lepers even by some in the medical community. Ambulance workers in several cities have refused to transport desperately ill patients to hospitals. Hospital orderlies are reluctant to clean their rooms. Nurses are wary. When a friend visiting an AIDS patient in a Los Angeles hospital stepped out into the corridor to fill a water pitcher for him, he was shouted at by a nurse. "That pitcher should never leave that damn room!" she screamed. "How dare you jeopardize us all?"
Even in death the AIDS victim is shunned. In St. Louis and New York, undertakers have refused to embalm the remains of patients. In Los Angeles, a funeral parlor was asked to handle the body of three-year-old Sammy Kushnick, who had died from AIDS contracted through a blood transfusion. Until a rabbi intervened, they refused to dress the boy in the clothes and prayer shawl his parents had selected for his burial.
Despite their physical ordeal, many AIDS sufferers say that the worst aspect of their condition is the sense of isolation and personal rejection. "It's like wearing the scarlet letter," says a 35-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who was forced out of a job at a top Texas law firm. "When people do find out," he says, "there is a shading, a variation in how they treat me. There is less familiarity. A lot less." Sometimes the changes are far from subtle, according to Mark Senak, a lawyer at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a volunteer organization that helps AIDS patients in New York. "They'll come out of the hospital, and their roommate has thrown them out--I mean literally," he says. "Their clothes will be on the street." Rejection of this sort is not unique to gay men. Senak cites the case of a heterosexual woman with AIDS whose husband and family refused to take her back home from the hospital.
To help AIDS patients cope, volunteer organizations like GMHC have popped up around the country, most of them organized by gay-community leaders. GMHC, founded in 1982, provides various services, including crisis intervention, a hot line that answers 3,000 calls a month, group-therapy sessions for patients and their survivors, and financial and legal services. Most successful of all, and widely emulated, is GMHC's buddy program, which assigns a volunteer to befriend an AIDS patient, helping him to shop, cook, clean his apartment and to feel less forgotten and shunned.
In Los Angeles, Carol Archer, 40, was assigned by the Shanti Foundation, another AIDS support group, to attend to the needs of a dying 31-year-old patient. He was alone; family and friends had withdrawn from him as lesions spread over most of his body. When Archer helped him with his will and funeral arrangements, he began to sob. She reached out, hugged him and rocked him in her arms. "He cried all the harder," she recalls, "then he looked up at me and said, 'No one's touched me in so long.' "
The volunteer groups have also taken a leading role in educating the public and, especially, high-risk populations about AIDS and how to avoid it. They have issued a blizzard of pamphlets on "safe sex," advising gays to refrain from anonymous contacts and to avoid the exchange of body fluids. On the West Coast, AIDS Project Los Angeles has published a comprehensive guide to the disease titled "Living with AIDS." The project has also launched a billboard campaign and distributed posters with gentle reminders to "Play Safely."