Dec. 13, 2012 – Chicago, Ill. – It was 1982. Time magazine’s Man of the Year was the computer. Michael Jackson released what would become the megahit Thriller album. Sony launched the first personal CD player. And the Centers for Disease Control had just given a name to a disease that would go on to kill millions—auto immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS.
In October of that year, David Moore, DO, a physician who had only been in practice for a few years, saw his first patient and personal friend come into his office with the symptoms of AIDS. What followed were, in his words, “13 years of carnage.”
A gay man himself, Dr. Moore and his medical and life partner, David Blatt, MD, went to work, spearheading what would be the first dedicated AIDS unit in the Midwest, if not the nation, at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
“It was a different time. There was so much fear then,” Dr. Blatt said. “The news media was calling it the ‘gay cancer’ and there was very little knowledge or education on what it was or how it was transmitted. There was a lot of panic and discrimination.”
Dr. Moore said they felt they had to do something. “This was us. This was our community and neighborhood. We were in this risk group. It was affecting our friends, our patients. We needed to take action.”
Drs. Moore and Blatt studied the disease, consulted with other physicians, locally and nationally, and worked with nurses, administrators and other hospital staff to establish Illinois Masonic’s AIDS unit. Here, patients weren’t left alone in dirty rooms with meals left at the door. Here, physicians shook their hands and nurses comforted them. Here, nurses took patients home to care for them in their last days, building upon the nationally burgeoning practices of palliative and hospice care.
“We like to say we were ‘high-tech, high-touch,’ because we wanted to do it all,” Dr. Blatt said. “We didn’t consider it revolutionary. It was simple acceptance. No one was ever turned away.”
Though, they said, some hospital leaders were leery of gaining the reputation as the “AIDS hospital,” no one stood in their way. Gerald Mungerson, the executive director, was particularly supportive of their healing mission.
The medical center, located on the southern end of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, was and is the hospital for Chicago’s gay community. The care on the 24-bed unit, Unit 371, stood out in its service—the physicians said the pathologists developed specialized biopsies for the condition, respiratory physicians worked to battle pneumonias caused by the disease and universal precautions were implemented throughout the hospital to battle the condition’s possible spread.
“We were definitely flying by the seats of our pants,” Dr. Moore said. “There were no studies, no literature. We were talking to doctors on both coasts, initially unaware of the degree of the problem and how infectious it was. There was so much we didn’t know.”
The unit was established because there was a “critical mass” among physicians, nurses and staff to do something, Dr. Blatt said. “And all the while, the patients were charming and bright and inspiring. They were so, so appreciative of our efforts, we just naturally felt we had to do more.”
Both agreed that one of the goals of the unit was to give the patients a place to go, as many were tossed out of their homes when diagnosed. And it was an additional burden that many were too embarrassed to seek treatment at all for fear of being labeled and discriminated against further.
“These were young patients—vibrant young men just beginning their lives, for the most part,” Dr. Moore said. “These young men were coming in and, within a week, they were dead. These were patients who weren’t prepared at all. All of us walked the walk with them. And when they died, a little bit of you died with them.”
The unit that came to be was a “colorful, happy place,” Dr. Moore said, despite the death that hung over it. In one month, the unit lost 27 patients. “But it helped, at least, to lessen the stigma and fear, at least a little bit. We gave them somewhere safe to go and feel included.”
With the discovery and development of protease inhibitors for the treatment of HIV around 1995, the need for the AIDS unit at the medical center, thankfully, declined and the unit eventually closed. Drs. Moore and Blatt headed into retirement last year, but the pride in the legacy lives on.
About Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center
Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center is a 408-bed hospital in Chicago with a Level I trauma center and a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the highest designations awarded by the state of Illinois. It offers comprehensive inpatient services, including medical, surgical, obstetrics and pediatric care, as well as a full breadth of outpatient services. A recipient of numerous awards for quality and clinical excellence, Illinois Masonic was ranked one of the nation’s 100 Top Hospitals in 2010, 2011 and 2012 by Thomson Reuters, as well as named a recipient of the organization’s Everest Award for National Benchmarks in 2010. The medical center has also been named a Leader in the Human Rights Campaign’s Healthcare Equality Index for the past four years, as well as one of the Chicago region’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report for the past two years. In 2012, the hospital achieved Magnet redesignation for excellence and quality in nursing services by the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Magnet Recognition Program, which it originally achieved in 2008. Illinois Masonic is part of Advocate Health Care, a 2009 and 2010 Thomson Reuters Top 10 U.S. health care system for quality and clinical performance and the largest provider of health care services in Illinois. For more on Illinois Masonic, visit www.advocatehealth.com/masonic.
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