My Epidemic: An AIDS Memoir of One Man's Struggle as Doctor, Patient and Survivor

My Epidemic: An AIDS Memoir of One Man's Struggle as Doctor, Patient and Survivor

by Andrew M. Faulk


WHEN YOUNG DR. ANDREW FAULK first learned he was HIV-positive, he was devastated for it certainly meant imminent death. Until then, he’d been an outstanding young physician with years of intensive training. That day, without warning, he faced the great divide of his life. Due to the rigors and stress of training, he considered abandoning his medical career. But, instead, he dedicated the remainder of his life to the fight against AIDS, ultimately participating in the care of approximately 50 patients who died, many his own peers, including his partner. Being HIV-positive, Faulk discovered something other doctors didn’t experience—in every patient he cared for, whatever the symptoms, he saw himself. As patients and friends died around him, at any time he, too, could have “stepped off the earth.” Yet with intuition, insight and compassion, he brought peace and comfort whenever possible to those he called “my guys.” After a long silence he recounts those heroic years and tells this, his true story as doctor, patient and survivor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781733429108
Publisher: Andrew Faulk
Publication date: 12/01/2019
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

ANDREW FAULK, M.D., a native of Seattle, received his B.A. from Columbia University where he graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and his M.D. from the University of Washington. After his training in San Francisco, an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, he moved to Los Angeles where he participated in the care of approximately 50 patients who died from the disease. He now lives with his husband, Frank Jernigan, in San Francisco where he paints and is active in progressive politics.

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Well, this was the way it was. Or at least the way it was for me. For there is nothing in my story that makes it any more or less accurate than those told by so many others who lived through the worst days of the epidemic.

More than 30 years after I was told I was HIV-positive, I found myself with my husband Frank, walking into a furnished house in Cazadero, California, to spend a weekend away from the routines of life. And there on the right side of the mantel was a "pinscreen," a curio consisting of a small lucite box of silver-colored metallic rods, a 3-D "executive" toy, maybe 10" X 8", designed to capture the terrain of one's face, or hand, or whatever is pressed against it. If one flips the box over, however, all the metal rods fall back into their original, shapeless configuration. Like an old-fashioned Etch-a-Sketch, this toy could create an impression technically faithful, but easily wiped away.

It reminded me of visiting the apartment of my friend Norman Nash, in the 1990s, who showed me his own pinscreen. In his, poignantly, lay the handprint of his deceased lover. It held all the turmoil and sorrow of our time. Each time we visited his apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he would survey it with a sadness and foreboding. The little device was never meant to capture a likeness permanently; its charm was in its transient preservation of an image which was easily erased by merely tipping it over. "What do I do with this?" he would ask. "I can never erase it, but I can't protect it forever."

* * *


During my years of medical school at the University of Washington, Seattle, in the early 1980s, I had a long-distance relationship with a New Yorker named Gene. From time to time I would fly back to New York for this holiday or that and stay with Gene for a few days. It was during one of those visits that I learned of the death of a young handyman named Jeff. This was to be the first AIDS death of a friend. Jeff had been one of those relatively impoverished men in their late 20s/early 30s who hadn't been fortunate enough to attend and graduate from college and weren't part of the class of excruciatingly handsome, gym-going, successful young professionals of the gay community. He was, nonetheless, clever, articulate, and incredibly resourceful in making a living in what could have been, for him, an overwhelmingly expensive and hostile Manhattan. He was in a group of floating men without steady income who were friends of Gene and his neighbor Joseph, an artist in the same building.

Although we weren't close friends, Jeff and I knew each other, and occasionally heard about each other through Gene and Joseph. Gene and I had once visited Jeff's apartment, and found him in the midst of writing a porn novel, not his first, an activity that supplied him some income. He also made the odd dollar installing home sound systems and producing small battery-powered, light-emitting objets d'art which blinked and counted with colored lights.

Sometime during those years in the early 1980s I was visiting Gene and noticed Jeff's attractive little wall art — now with its blinking lights burnt out. At the time, Joseph was in the apartment on a small errand. Seeing the art silent and dark, I asked them about Jeff. He had suddenly fallen ill, Gene reported, and had entered the hospital and died within two weeks of some poorly-defined central nervous system disease. Numerous specialists had been called in on his case but to no avail. Once Jeff had passed away, as Gene had a key to Jeff's apartment, it had fallen on him to go with Jeff's father to unlock the apartment. In a scenario that was to be repeated over and over in those years with different grieving family members in different homes, the two of them opened his apartment, and together worked through his various possessions. At some point they were both embarrassed to find sexual paraphernalia and this inadvertent stumbling into the intimate details of Jeff's life made them feel horribly intrusive. As they went through the rest of his belongings, his tearful father repeated, "I don't know what to do with these things. I don't know what to do."

During my conversation with Joseph and Gene, Joseph was initially perplexed as he had confused Jeff with Scott, another one of his friends. Scott, unlike Jeff, had drifted away from him and the first evidence Joseph knew of a problem was when he had been out in Greenwich Village. Walking down Bleecker Street, Joseph had looked up to see Scott's apartment standing empty for he had, in that same disturbing manner, died suddenly.

The three of us were thrown by the sudden death of the two men and the mysterious nature of their illnesses but we later realized it had to have been AIDS. Our anxious astonishment was based on an earlier time when such youthful deaths were exceptional, before many of us began to exhibit the emotional shut-down of a population permanently stunned and bereft of the emotional energy required for grief. Bewildered, our review of these two early deaths was a pivotal moment for me — for all of us. The epidemic had already begun its terrifying machinations and, without fully understanding, we had begun to experience the sudden and incomprehensible loss of friends, acquaintances, and neighbors.

In the beginning of medical school the long-distance relationship with Gene worked well: we saw each other at least twice a year. As our holiday reunions were infrequent, times spent together were all the more cherished. One semester I was even able to study in New York. I lived with Gene on the Upper West Side and the relationship didn't seem to miss a beat. Gene was my window on the art and literary world of Monroe Wheeler (a key figure in New York's Museum of Modern Art) while Joseph became my view into the local social world. Through him I began to hear of the groundswell, the rising number of AIDS deaths. Soon after Jeff had passed, I learned that the man whom Jeff had once paid "key money" for a loft apartment, Larry Richardson, had died. Larry had been a Broadway stage designer and was in a crowd of successful New York men.

This group of more or less successful men, whom the rest of us greatly envied, was a segment of the population that seemed particularly blessed. Born with a baseline of good looks, gym workouts for these men seemed effortless and productive: they merely touched a weight and seemed to instantly hypertrophy. Following work, they exercised, came home, had a "power nap," and raced to the bars and bathhouses at the time their more conventional peers were heading to bed. Out of the house at 11 or midnight, they socialized until 2 or 3 in the morning. And the next day they were up early doing household chores or getting to the gym before work. Their energy seemed boundless; they seemed to effortlessly juggle work, gym, social life, and the necessary daily chores of grocery shopping, bill paying, laundry, and cooking. Cleaning house was, perhaps, not performed as thoroughly as their gym workouts. (Not that there weren't plenty of anal-obsessive-compulsive men whose apartments were so spotless that they more than compensated for the untidiness of their peers.) Besides this baseline of envy, most of my brothers lived under an abiding assumption that their more socially-successful peers were having more sex, better sex than they. It's impossible to sort out how much of this was, in fact, real and how much was fantasy. The more worldly will also fault me for not taking into greater account those whose lives were routinely augmented by various pharmaceuticals.

As Joseph's wider social circle mirrored that of the gay population as a whole, the escalating death toll was increasingly unnerving. At this point, the enormity of the number of deaths began to hit those like me who had wishfully assumed that only the most sexually promiscuous and drug-addled were at risk. After this assumption was proven wrong, our next misguided urban legend — that we wanted to believe — was that the epidemic was largely limited to the "players" among us: the political and social leaders, the most successful, the most handsome, those with the most resources to travel and those with the most contact with others. This assumption, too, was quickly proven wrong.

It became clear soon enough that anyone could die from AIDS — from the successful Wall Street executive to the "party boy" to the drug-ravaged homeless. If this terrible new disease could reach any of these circles, it could reach any of us.

* * *


In those days, the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was on my mind. The story of an event which supposedly occurred in the 13th century involves a rat infestation of the medieval town of Hamelin which ended successfully when a magical "pied piper" was employed to lead the rats away from town by playing his magic flute. After the task was completed, the story goes, the town fathers refused to pay him the agreed-upon sum. In retribution, the piper played his flute again, but this time the children of the village were the prey that followed the flautist into a magical opening in a rocky mountain from which they never returned. There was, however, a cut-off point at which those farther down the procession were saved. Now, in my tragic real-world tale, there had to be a clear demarcation between those ahead and those behind. Was I at the head of the line — one who had enjoyed many sexual exploits and therefore would pay the highest price? Or was I at the end — one who had initially felt excluded, yet escaped the piper's song and lived to tell the tale? During the years that followed, my mind was to return to this image, and this question, again and again.

In the ensuing years I was to travel to New York many times, and each time the number of Gene and Joseph's acquaintances lost to this mysterious illness rose at an accelerating pace. At this point, however, although the number of dead were increasing, no one with whom I was intimate had become ill. So the terror remained, for me, at abeyance. But not for long.

In my third year of medical school at University Hospital in Seattle, I did an Internal Medicine rotation. It was then that I saw my first AIDS case, or, more accurately, witnessed its surroundings, which involved hyper-sanitary isolation. I didn't participate in that unfortunate individual's care, I merely saw the Attending physicians' moon-suits from a distance. The partition of the room itself was such that one couldn't see that patient even in passing. The hushed tones of the doctors involved, and the high degree of isolation — as well as the fact that we students were not allowed any part of the case — spoke volumes. There always exists doctor-patient confidentiality which, of course, is taken very seriously, but in this case the usual clipboards and chart were hidden away and closely guarded. These were such times when an AIDS diagnosis brought individual patients some hospital fame.

* * *


In 1984 I graduated from medical school. I had had occasional visits to New York where I'd see Gene and my extraordinary friend from Columbia, Nita Tierney. And at the UW I had important friendships with Linda Gromko, Ron Fletcher, Connie Smith and one or two other medical students. But I didn't share the more intimate parts of my life with anyone at school; so these were, on the whole, years of loneliness.

My policy then was simple: I would disclose my sexual orientation to no one until I had safely earned every degree that I wanted. I refused to have any diploma or professional endeavor taken from me because of my sexuality; and in service to that cause, I also did not disclose to friends or casual acquaintances. During the late 1980s, in fact, there were periods of renewed prejudice in public opinion, if not legal thinking, regarding HIV-positive physicians and the doctor-patient relationship. Could patients become infected with HIV through infected doctors? Should infected doctors be allowed to practice? In 1985 California Rep. William Dannemeyer introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit anyone with AIDS from working in the health care industry. The line between homosexuality and AIDS could be difficult to grasp. Not all gay people had HIV, not all HIV-infected people were gay. To the homophobic and those less familiar with the fact HIV is spread by sex or contaminated blood, misunderstanding of the distinction was spread by politics or ignorance. Confronted with such a little-known and terrifying disease which had no truly effective treatment, didn't it make sense to do away with overlapping segments on a Venn diagram and just assume that all gay people had AIDS? After all, I didn't become Board Certified until 1987 when the debate was at its peak. It was impossible to predict how any given institution would react to an HIV-positive physician. My ambition was profound. Would disclosure to the UW bureaucracy have resulted in termination? Probably not. I was more concerned, however, with homophobic individuals quietly sabotaging my career than any formal difficulty with the University.

Now, looking back from the safety and comfort of the second decade of the 21st century and distant from the Bible belts of America, my self-imposed isolation appears self-defeating and I review it with a certain amount of regret. The pressure of the epidemic forced personal disclosures which helped create an entirely different world after the turn of the last century. Society has changed, and I have grown wiser with age. If I had it to do over again, I believe I would be willing to sacrifice my professional ambition and take the risk of coming out. But then I quite possibly would not have been able to help our community in the ways I was.

* * *


In my third year of medical school, I began a clerkship in pediatrics at Children's Orthopedic Hospital of Seattle. If surgery was fueled by egotistic showmanship and hypertestosterone, then nurturing oxytocin-rich pediatrics was its opposite, at least according to conventional wisdom. But interestingly enough, my experience was not to be as warm and fuzzy as most people encounter. Our teaching attendant was a Dr. LeFou who thought of himself as something of a comedian. In the long white hospital jacket of an Attending physician, he kept a pair of shears. It was his habit, I was to discover later, to suddenly produce these scissors and amputate the necktie of an unwitting student before the startled individual became aware of what was happening. He also believed that "Attending Rounds" with his students should be brief: to guarantee this routine, he offered to pay for students' breakfasts if rounds lasted less than 30 minutes. This ensured that instruction didn't take too much of his day since it naturally truncated our discussion.

The premature ending of our discussions had quite an effect on me, and my trust in the system. When I mentioned my negative assessment of the built-in system for brevity, it was one of my rare moments of confrontation and an impolitic impulse to be sure. But a few days later when we met for rounds, Dr. LeFou shocked me by brandishing his ever-present scissors and attacking my tie. The blitzkrieg of his pocketed scissors was his common modus operandi, and what was left of my tie hung from some inglorious threads. In logical defense I suggested that my tie could have been, among other possibilities, a family heirloom. My criticism of his maneuver made him all the more angry with me, for my comments on his teaching style was apparently already on his mind. Suddenly we weren't pals anymore. For someone who so easily projected his horror of castration, my reaction was unforgivable. When the gravity of his response became clear, I made light of my resistance. But his sense of humor had vanished and he, an Attending, felt disrespected by a lowly third-year medical student. He notified the school that my knowledge was suspect and my patient interaction inferior.

The administration immediately pulled me from the rotation: a report of a substandard doctor was not taken lightly. What followed was a month of sequestration and ancillary testing. My degree, my future profession, was in sudden doubt. And it had nothing to do with my sexual orientation but was based on my resistance to Dr. LeFou's castration anxieties!

It was a tough month for me. I had suffered for years from the "Yuppie Complex" of not fully believing that I deserved my position, and so feared my "impostor" status would be revealed. Those four weeks, however, proved I was more than capable of my responsibilities. But after that anxious month I understood my position in the system was far more precarious than I had ever dreamed.


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Copyright © 2019 Andrew M. Faulk.
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