Three nurses draw straws to see who must attend to the patient in the room with the red tarp covering the door. The patient, or whatever lies behind that door must pose a danger to the nurses because even after the loser has drawn the short straw they still argue, none of them wanting to cross the threshold.
Ruth, who is visiting her friend who has cancer, is curious when she comes across the nurses and the door. She must move closer to read the writing. While the nurses still argue about who must enter the room, Ruth slips past them. BIOHAZARD is written on the door in bold capital letters. Styrofoam food trays litter the floor around the door.
A desperate, weak cry of help goads Ruth into peering into the room behind the red tarp. This is Ruth’s first look at an AIDS patient, and the sickly emaciated body shocks her.
The year is 1986, not much is known about AIDS yet, and ignorance fuels fear. The courage that Ruth displays when she enters the young man’s room to console and wash his face is astounding considering that at this early stage, the medical community was still trying to find information on how the disease was transmitted, hence the nurses reluctance to enter.
It is an early indication, and testament, to just what type of woman Ruth is when she stays with him until he passes and then organizes his cremation. All this for somebody she just met, and who, in Ruth’s eyes at the time, could pass on a lethal disease.
This tragic meeting is the catalyst that starts off Ruth’s amazing life of helping the young men dying of AIDS. The men that nobody wanted anything to do with. I simply cannot believe the lengths she goes to, helping these strangers. At first just being there as a comfort for the dying men, organizing their cremations, with little to no help.
However, she does not stop there. She researches the disease, building her knowledge, looking for cures or preventative medicines, while pilfering drugs and paraphernalia to treat the patients. This is one incredible lady.
What makes her do this? There is no pay, no rewards, in fact the complete opposite. She is demonized, vilified, banned from medical establishments, and yet she keeps going, incredibly, increasing the help and support she provides with each day. She finds food, shelter, when money and food stamps run out, she looks for fund raising opportunities and donations. She goes through dumpsters getting food that is fresh and edible just thrown out from a wasteful society. Again, this is for people she does not know, dying of a deadly disease. She does it because she feels it is the right thing to do.
This memoir is not just about Ruth helping these men. It is about her own personal struggle being a single parent and raising a young daughter amongst her chaotic life. The effect that her decision to help these men and choose this path has on her daughter’s life. The father forever behind in child support payments, payments that are rarely paid at all.
Her own childhood, growing up without a father, and a clinically crazy mother who clinically destroys every chance of Ruth having a happy, normal childhood.
It is not an embellishment to say that people like Ruth played a vital role in the fight against AIDS. It may not have been so obvious at the time, and progress was painfully slow, but progress in almost all facets of the fight was slowly made. Awareness, treatment, myths dispelled. Ruth had the courage and the morals to help, when most of the world turned a blind eye.
While reading this memoir I was constantly reminded of “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. These recollections made this book, and what Ruth achieved even more impressive. Another book that restores my faith in humanity. 4.5 Stars!