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Equity & Justice

AIDS At 40: A tribute to a partner lost

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Arlen Miller
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Arlen Miller and his partner Mike Walsh.

(The following is an essay from Arlen Miller, a Danville native, about his late partner. He wrote the essay in November 2020. The views expressed are his own. This year marks four decades since the first documented AIDS case in the U.S.)

Thirty years ago today, my first partner, Mike Walsh, died from an AIDS-related brain tumor. After weeks of listening to his labored breathing in a semi-comatose state, I was awakened by the silence when his breathing stopped. I walked over to his bed, put a hand on his chest, said his name and he took one last breath and was gone.

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Arlen Miller
Mike Walsh, who died 31 years ago of AIDS-related brain tumor at the age of 33, is pictured besides a sign that says PLAGUE WARNING. It was taken shortly before he became ill.

At 33 years old, he had earned a degree in International Finance from Georgetown University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. He was a Democratic community organizer and worked on the staff of Peter Franchot, a Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates.

When he died, he left a mountain of debt—mostly student loans from putting himself through school. I’ve been reflecting on what has changed over the past 30 years. Sadly, not a lot.

• Student loan debt is soaring out of control and Betsy DeVos has questionable motives for making student loan debt relief unattainable.

• We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is being grossly mishandled by an incompetent/uncaring Republican administration.

• AIDS first started appearing in gay men in 1981—the year I graduated from high school. The CDC started calling it a global pandemic in 2006.

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5531a1.htm

• When AIDS started, a Republican president (Ronald Reagan) ignored it, as did his successor, George H.W. Bush. It was considered a “gay disease” and gay men were expendable. Mike once wrote a letter to Barbara Bush asking for her help. He got back a note wishing him well. Thanks a lot, Bar.

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Arlen Miller
From Christmas 1989. Arlen Miller shared this photo of Mike Walsh with NPR Illinois because, he says, “it illustrates how much AIDS and the drugs changed a person's appearance. The drugs changed his hair — no longer wavy. Also he just looks pale and sickly — a shadow of his former self.”

• The current COVID-19 pandemic inordinately affects people of color—another group that Republicans consider expendable.

• Mike did not have health insurance. He couldn’t afford it and AIDS made him uninsurable—it was the ultimate pre-existing condition back then. At that time “domestic partner benefits” were not available. So, he could not be added to my health insurance at work.

• In the midst of our current pandemic, the Trump administration is going to court to once again try to scuttle the Affordable Care Act and eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans.

• At that point AZT was the only treatment for AIDS. He couldn’t afford it. I was a member of an AIDS buddy team at Whitman Walker Clinic in D.C. Whenever a client died the unwritten rule among the buddies was “GET THE DRUGS!” And, that was how Mike got the AZT he needed.

• His “white privilege” and a friend who was a doctor working at NIH got him shoe-horned into a trial for an experimental drug called DDI. As a participant in the trial he was afforded very basic “free” health care at an NIH clinic. In exchange he got a brain tumor.

• Because he was officially indigent, Mike was eligible for free nursing visits at home courtesy of Montgomery County, Maryland. It was help from the county and help from his brother, Carl and sister-in-law, Jane, that allowed Mike to die with dignity at home.

• The gay community was split over measures that were being taken to stem the tide of AIDS. A lot of folks were enraged over gay bathhouses being closed down in the name of public health. Does that have a familiar ring to it?

• Anthony Fauci eventually became the face of the government’s response to AIDS through research at NIH. At first he was considered a villain by the ACT-UP and other members of the gay community. But he eventually became known as one of our most valuable allies.

• The Gay Community learned that condoms were a barrier for the virus and slowed the spread of the disease. People started using condoms and fewer people died.

Hello? Got a mask?

• Nancy Pelosi was new to Congress, stating in her first speech in Congress on June 9, 1987, that “…now we must take leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”

Isn’t this the same lady who is trying to get funding and a plan together for “Testing. Testing. Testing.” for COVID?

What have I learned from all this that can be applied today:

• Trust in Fauci

• Trust in Nancy

• Public health is not a matter of individual freedom

• Wear a f**king mask!

• Health care should be a right

• I don’t mind paying taxes to fund health care, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that equation.

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