I’ve thought often of late about a young man I met in the first year of my public safety career. I was an ambulance EMT then, not yet a police officer, but the downtown streets of Austin were frenetic and immersed in violence and fear. Gang warfare had broken out in sections of the city as would-be warlords established crack cocaine territories, and a disease simply called “The Virus” spread demonic tendrils across the world. The young man and I had never met; I’ll never forget him.
In those days AIDS was so new that alerts from the media and the medical community changed sometimes hourly. “Wear gloves and a mask and don at least two pair of gloves; masks and gloves won’t help if you breathe “their” air; it’s the wrath of God for sinful ways; Dear God, now children have it!” Despite the random ruthlessness of the crack gang gunfire, I don’t remember anyone being as afraid of getting caught in a crossfire as being trapped in a room with someone infected. It was a terrifying time, eerily akin to these early days of the novel coronavirus.
Thoughts of the young man have come to me in waves since my wife and I watched Bohemian Rhapsody (the Freddie Mercury/Queen move) some months back. The young man from my mission and the musician whose life was portrayed in the film died similarly, attacked by a virus with a nearly 100% death rate at that time, abandoned by long-time friends, and their terror barbed by the heartbreak of what might have been.
That night someone called 911 on his behalf, placed a Do Not Resuscitate order on his chest, and then left the apartment presumably never to return. My partner and I arrived to find a fire department crew and two patrol officers already outside the building. The fire fighters were standing outside their red engine, all of them in full bunker gear and breathing from air packs. The police officers wouldn’t approach closer than half a block. None of them had ventured in, but they’d surmised the person reported to be in respiratory distress within the bungalow apartment was dying of—as it was stated by one firefighter—“that gay disease.”
Truth be told, my whole being pleaded against me going inside. I desperately wanted to stay outside on that sidewalk, to put on my own air pack, to let someone, anyone else handle it. There was no one else. No friends, no family, no one else in uniform to go check on him, so my partner and I went in.
He was dying on a bare mattress in the middle of a dingy room the size of a walk-in closet. His eyes were wide and darting. He was naked, sweating, and covered with piercings and Kaposi sarcoma lesions that have always looked to me like a swamp-leech bruise. The tendons in his emaciated neck were flaring and his rib muscles heaving from the effort to take even one more breath. The DNR order fluttered on his sternum like a court summons wagged in my face by a surly process server.
My partner and I quickly discussed plans to move him out of the apartment and into our ambulance, but he shook his head feebly at our suggestion to transport him to the hospital. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear what he had to say. I lowered my ear close enough to hear, “Don’t breathe their air!” screaming inside my head, though he actually said, “Let me die here,” whispered from a febrile, fetid breath. He knew he was dying, and he would do it in his own bed, despite the fact no one in his circle of friends and family had made it with fresh linen—any linen.
His breaths became staccato, gulping like goldfish on drenched linoleum amidst shattered glass and aquarium gravel. We gave him oxygen, and I held his bony hand because I simply didn’t know what else to do. At some point I realized I was holding my own breath, and I took my next as he took his last. It became such a quiet room. I held his hand a while longer. The coroner came, and we returned to the station to clean up. No one knows when you cry in the shower.
We come now to coronavirus, new and mysterious, frenzy-making, tailored for finger pointing and prepper-hoarding. I did a lot of research into Spanish Flu last year as I worked on a historical fiction project, and like “The Virus” that took us by such calamity early in my career, Spanish Flu carries a lot of similarities to this “novel” COVID-19 outbreak. All three were exacerbated by panic, downplayed by some leaders, and so active and mysterious as to have caught entire nations flat-footed and desperate for medical solutions.
My experience, training, and research tell me we’ll survive this one just as we always have, but it also tells me we’ll see new lows from some officials, conflicting information blown to sky-is-falling proportions by some media outlets, and cowardice by some people we once considered loyal. I hope for a cure, but more importantly, I hope humanity will rise in response to this latest shared peril. We have it in us to not panic, to share innovation, to put pettiness aside, and to default toward kindness.
I do think often about that young man—we were both twenty-two—and about how his life was ending as mine was just revving into second gear. I cannot recall ever being as frightened as I felt that night, but I also can’t point to any story from a lifetime of adventure that brings me much more pride. It changed me, toughening my soul against the so-much-more that was to come in my thirty-year career, but it also highlighted what I was meant to do with my own remaining time here. Somebody, anybody needed to hold that kid’s hand that night. I’m just blessed it got to be me.