Friday, December 01, 2006

Shifting identities: reflections on World AIDS Day

Although clearly a Donkey, I have at times played at being a Horse (although I admit that in attempting this, I usually tend to come across looking more like a Zebra), but this kind of double-life has, on occasions, led me into some very interesting situations, and from time to time, has been the source of some very powerful soul-searching.

Today is World AIDS Day, and on this day, one such experience which springs to mind saw a much younger, and more innocent “Horse” meeting a young man who, after a serious heroin bender, had fallen “asleep” for 36 hours, lying awkwardly on one leg, cutting off the circulation. Starved of oxygen, the leg had gone into complete shut-down, and the muscles had started to degenerate.

The nerves had also stopped doing their thing, which was great for Jason, because without any sensation of pain, he was able to continue his daily routine of pounding the pavements in search of a fix, a bed, a smoke, a partner or whatever. Pretty soon, his heel and the ball of his foot were gone, worn completely away, and his Hep C had advanced enough that his chances of healing, unless some pretty major lifestyle changes were initiated and sustained, were pretty slim.

As I said, this didn’t pose much of a problem to him, until he was admitted to hospital by a concerned social worker, and this was a problem, not because he had a stinking, rotting, more-or-less useless leg, but because he was not allowed to “use” while he was admitted as an in-patient.

And so began his relationship with a young, naive “Horse. They both got on very well, and Horse swallowed all Jason’s shit about wanting to turn over a new leaf. Horse, more-or-less fresh from his sheltered, suburban up-bringing, worked very hard to convince Jason that he would be able to save the young man’s leg, and Jason was very grateful ... right up until the point where he discovered that the treatment would take three or four months.

It was at that point that a young medical practitioner in the same hospital was also pretending to be something he was not - a surgeon, and he was all but drooling over Jason’s rotting limb. Despite some seriously heart-felt reasoning from Horse that three months was a small price to pay for a functioning limb, the wanna-be surgeon’s offer of an overnight operation and “back on the street by Thursday” was more attractive to Jason, and that was the last Horse ever saw of him…

Donkey, on the other hand, was at that time engaged in some other work activities, and came across Jason a few weeks later in a men’s shelter in Melbourne’s grotty inner-west. He was wheelchair bound, and had not once returned to hospital to dress his stump, which was evident from about twenty feet away. He’d been off his head for three weeks, and despite the stench, had an impressive entourage “looking after him”, who, like Jason, were enjoying the freedom of his extra welfare payments.

For two weeks, Donkey/Horse implored Jason to come back to the clinic to have his dressings changed. The next week, I asked some of the infamous entourage where Jason had gone, and the shrug of the shoulders by way of reply spoke volumes about the end of Jason’s welfare payments, but very little about his actual welfare!

It was a rude awakening for a would-be-Horse, and pushed me one step closer to accepting my true place in the barn yard. Jason taught me that for some people, in the face of limited choices (real or perceived) their health is a secondary consideration, and that unless those Horses, “surgeons” and others who are entrusted with their care understand this, they are, through their naivety, risking the lives of those within their care.

After Jason, who I never saw or heard from again, I came to learn a lot more about intravenous transmission of Hepatitis C, and of course, it’s intravenous bed-fellow, HIV. I learned about a group of people whose needs often override their ability to prioritise in favour of their health, and their lives, and I learned about a society who is happy to turn a blind eye, believing intravenous transmission of HIV through injecting drug use to be someone else’s problem.

Since then, a much-prouder-to-be Donkey has also learned how people from that same society have unprotected sex with other people who have had unprotected sex with injecting drug users, and Donkey understands all too well why HIV through injecting with unclean, unsafe equipment is EVERYBODY’S problem.

Donkey has come to understand that protecting injecting drug users through supply of safe, clean injecting equipment also protects the rest of society from HIV and AIDS.

Out there somewhere, if he is still alive, there is a one-legged man who’s responsible for teaching me this … and although I may have failed Jason, I have turned my ignorance into a life-pursuit in an attempt to ensure that others are not forced to suffer the same risks as Jason and his mates.

World AIDS Day, 2006. Pic:


Stewart Sternberg said...

I remember the first time I became aware of HIV. I was working for a newspaper in Detroit in 1982 or 1983 and going through press releases. One press release was a paragraph which talked about this condition that was attacking the immune system. The article was a whisper. I remember reading it and thinking how chilling the thing sounded and sensing that somehow it was the beginning of something more ominous.

I passed the press release for later scrutiny and like most Americans who read about the curiousity that seemed to be running through the gay community (which was how HIV was then portrayed), I shook my head and carried on, not sure what to make of it.

DonkeyBlog said...

Yeah, I was in hospital in 1984, when the virus hit Melbourne, and we had the first cases in the next ward - so it was all very real for the staff there ... but I remember over the next few years, all sorts of stuff in the media, like a major scare from the tabloid current affairs programmes in Australia, which ran a story for a few weeks about how cats carried HIV and we all had these fluffy, viral time-bombs living in our homes ... good grief!

J said...


DonkeyBlog said...

No J, not :(
I think more like :| becasue we have made some progress over the decades, and lots of people are doing some great work ... but I guess we still have a long way to go until we get to :)