When physician Ross A. Slotten became one of the doctors on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago, he saw firsthand the havoc the disease wreaked on his patients and the contempt it bred for them outside hospital walls. His new memoir, Plague Years, explores his more than 30 years of working with HIV/AIDS patients, battling the disease alongside his own internal conflicts as a gay man. This excerpt comes from the book’s first chapter.
To the casual visitor, the west wing of the eleventh floor of St. Joseph Hospital didn’t look like a vision of hell. The elevator opened into the solarium, a glass-encased, semicircular space with a panoramic view of Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. In the distance, sailboats plied the waters beyond a steady stream of traffic on Lake Shore Drive; in the foreground there were joggers on tree-shaded paths. Northward, fashionable high-rises lined the park; to the south rose the iconic skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. What wasn’t visible, to the west, was Boys’ Town, the city’s gayest neighborhood, a jumble of bars, restaurants, sex shops, and inexpensive apartments—the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. It was September 1992, and the city brimmed with life, in stark contrast to 11 West—our AIDS unit—where death reigned.
At 7:00 a.m., when I arrived for hospital rounds, the solarium was usually empty; but occasionally a patient sat staring at the scenic vista, his back to me and his body connected to an intravenous line that snaked from a plastic bag atop a metal pole and disappeared into an arm I could not see; or a patient’s lover or family waited for me or one of the other doctors who took care of AIDS patients, seeking an update on their loved one’s condition or to ask questions we often couldn’t answer. These uncomfortable encounters foreshadowed my visits to the sick and dying patients on the ward. Despite the picturesque urban vista, I could never deceive myself: eleven years into the AIDS epidemic, 11 West was not the place of hope we had conceived of but one of darkness and despair.
Seen from above, St. Joseph Hospital was the shape of an enormous cross, thirteen stories tall. It was a Catholic institution administered by the Daughters of Charity, an order that once commanded the largest nonprofit fleet of hospitals in the United States. The Daughters soft-pedaled their religion. There were, of course, the requisite crucifixes in strategic places, and in the main lobby there was a larger-than-life color photograph of the current pope in full regalia. But everyone was welcome regardless of religious belief (or nonbelief ), race, gender, or sexual orientation. During those times when I felt frustrated by our failure to discover life-saving treatments; bristled at the bigotry of evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who railed against those infected with HIV as sinners deserving their horrible fate; or struggled with internal demons—guilt about my own good health or rage at my impotence—I sometimes forgot that St. Joe’s, as we called it, was a refuge of tolerance and support. But if it hadn’t been, it would have been impossible to practice there.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis by Ross A. Slotten, MD, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.