By the end of 1982 the AIDS epidemic had a name, a presence on six continents, and 1,573 reported cases (Grmek, 43). By the end of 1984, that number was 12,174 (Grmek, 43). Researchers had developed neither a cure nor an effective treatment and the Reagan administration seemed uninterested in funding research, at best. President Reagan did not publically use the term “AIDS” until 1985. An AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. Fighting for research money, navigating medical choices, and finding emotional support became a community effort for people with AIDS as well as their friends, families, and caregivers. Almost immediately, groups formed to respond to these needs. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City was the first, formed in 1981. In Massachusetts, the AIDS Action Coalition formed in 1983, working out of the basement of a community health center in Boston.1
Nurses often provided medical and emotional support to HIV/AIDS patients. They helped patients navigate the fear, pain, and grief that accompanied the diagnosis, as well the medical bills and clinical trial options that went along with treatments2. Donna Gallagher, A.R.N.P., worked as a nurse in Boston. Like Carol Bova, Gallagher worked as an oncology nurse before transitioning into caring for people with AIDS. The first AIDS therapies were completely palliative. Her job, as she described it, was “to help people die”3. Gallagher never stopped caring for AIDS patients. She went on to do HIV/AIDS work in Romania, South America, and Africa, as well as to earn her Ph.D. from Brandeis, focusing on HIV and minority women. She now teaches in the Division of Family Practice at UMass Medical School and Instructor in the Graduate Schools of Nursing on both the Boston and Worcester UMass campuses and serves as Principal Investigator/Director of the New England AIDS Education and Training Center (NEAETC)4.
Very early on, HIV/AIDS was stigmatized as a “gay disease” by researchers and the media. HIV/AIDS did affect a large portion of the gay community, and the community was very vocal in AIDS activism. But it is important to remember that all ages, races, sexualities, and socio-economic communities were affected by HIV/AIDS. From the early 1980’s UMMS research–with hemophiliacs, HIV positive mothers and children, and several African countries–reflected the need to provide the best quality medical care for all HIV/AIDS patients on a global scale.
The picture on the left s postcard from Gran Fury. Gran Fury, an artists’ collective within ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), created iconic materials, including postcards, to spread information and promote education about HIV and AIDS. The mantra featured here subverts President George H. W. Bush’s quip about no new taxes, delivered during the 1988 Republican National Convention, to call attention to his ambivalent support on AIDS outreach, education, research, and support.