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Ryan White Voices

Looking Back: A Day of Remembrance

On June 5, 2011 Donna Gallagher participated in the Boston AIDS Walk to mark the 30th anniversary of AIDS.

"We paused to remember the patients and families affected by HIV/AIDS. Sometimes it's hard to believe [but] I have watched 700 patients die in those 30 years."

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Donna Gallagher

It was like being part of a secret society.

“‘What’s a nice nurse like you doing in AIDS care working with ‘those’ people?’” That was the response Donna Gallagher first received when transitioning from Oncology to AIDS care. She says, “It was as if I had moved from an honorable sector of nursing to the ‘dirty’ part of health care.”

In 1982, Donna was a nurse practitioner in Boston, Massachusetts when the AIDS epidemic began. “I was in the Fenway area, which was heavily populated with gay men. I saw the need for my services and quickly became an AIDS nurse,” Donna states. “There was a pretty significant stigma at the time,” she recalls. “Nurses would often walk up and yell at me for bringing this disease to the hospital and putting them at risk. At the time, there wasn’t even a name for the virus, but that didn’t diminish the fear that surrounded it.”

“My Job Was to Help People Die.”

“I’m told by my family that I made the decision to be a nurse by the time I was four,” says Donna with a laugh. “I did whatever I could in school to be able to enter into that field.”

Though some people have always had this kind of conviction, few people feel betrayed by their colleagues when following it. But that’s exactly what happened to Donna after she started providing AIDS care. “I had been a nurse for 10 to 12 years before AIDS hit. I didn’t see much of a difference between providing palliative and end of life care to cancer patients versus AIDS patients, but a lot of people did,” Donna says. Friends and colleagues turned away. “They didn’t understand why I would do such a thing and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t. We’re nurses; that’s what we do—we help people!”

Donna and one other nurse at the hospital found themselves caring for the hospital’s growing number of AIDS patients. “AIDS is different than cancer, even if some of the care you provide is similar. Both require a lot of the same skills. But in cancer, a patient would die and the whole family came together to help one another cope. In AIDS, I saw entire families wiped out: partners, mothers and children, families of hemophiliacs.”

Back then, “being a cancer nurse, you’re always a hero. Everyone loves you and it’s ok to sit down and talk about the difficulties of your job, including losing a patient but the same isn’t true for everyone.” No one wanted to talk about AIDS and most people didn’t want to talk to AIDS nurses.

It is because of this that Donna would often avoid discussing her nursing specialty when out in public. “My own coworkers weren’t supportive and it was only worse outside the hospital walls,” she says. “I wouldn’t tell people at cocktail parties exactly what it was that I did. If I did, they would move to a different room.”

But nurses need to de-stress. They need to be able to talk to other individuals who can relate to their experiences. It’s cathartic. It’s healthy. It’s something that Donna says was missing. “It took a long time in the HIV epidemic to give rise to support groups. There were only a handful of nurses in this field so it was difficult to bond together and help each other. A lot of nurses in AIDS care, however, began in oncology and this helped give way to a type of ‘secret society.’”

Oncology Conferences Turned Secret Meetings

“In the beginning, AIDS patients kept dying. I think between 82 to 90 people died under my care at the start of the epidemic. This was years before AZT was introduced,” recalls Donna. Although a lot of patients were lost, Donna still believes that it’s a privilege to share in someone’s death, to try to provide support for them and their family. That doesn’t mean, however, that experiences such as these aren’t difficult.

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