I had the privilege of watching my niece's high school production of the musical 'Rent'. I knew the general story - AIDS in the '80's, ACT UP, and the incredible losses of that era - but I had never seen it. We're watching the movie now, and honestly the high school kids nailed it, maybe more so than the movie. They were able to display an incredible range of emotion. They are too young to have any memory of the horror of those days. But I do.
As an AIDS support group in the movie sings, "Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?" I see those who had lost all dignity in the face of suffering, whose families refused to see them for no other reason than the fact that they had AIDS.
During the scene where Angel dies, I see faces. Faces I haven't seen since 1987. Dozens of faces. The faces of those whose hands I held. Faces, eyes closing in death no matter what I did, no matter how hard we fought together for life, no matter what they were leaving behind. Flashbacks, flickering from face to face to face - so many. So, so many.
I've been a doctor for over 25 years. I lost more patients to AIDS in New York City in one year than I have lost altogether since then from everything else put together. Doctors are trained to compartmentalize. We deal with the horror of the moment, pack it tightly in a box and move on. There was one week where I signed four death certificates a day, every day; and very, very few days where there weren't any. It is rare for me to let that box open, to see those faces, to feel those feelings. But there are very, very few times in my life that I can see with such photographic clarity; hear with full theatre surround sound; smell more vividly than spring lilacs.