Almost exactly half a lifetime ago, I was single, living in Los Angeles, and dateless, so I conceived a brilliant idea.
I would become a hospital volunteer, so I could hit on nurses.
Nurses are hot.
So I went to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, one of the most highly regarded hospitals in the world, where, I was certain, an abundance of nurses awaited.
I filled out the forms, and met with the volunteer coordinator, who asked, “Do you want to work on our new HIV unit?”
The year was 1989, and medicine still had no idea what to do for people with HIV.
I knew what to do — decline.
And that’s what I did.
And then in the next breath, I asked, “Is it safe?”
“Yes,” the volunteer coordinator assured me.
And that’s how your correspondent became a member of the first group of volunteers at the HIV unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, all the way back in 1989.
They put us through 24 hours of training, which included the medical, psychological, and social aspects of HIV and related illnesses, and they taught us how to be volunteers.
The starting point was to recognize that a patient’s room was his or her castle, and even though you had a blue smock and a badge, you had no right to enter until you had asked for and received permission.
And so it began.
For the next two years, I spent four hours every Thursday at the HIV unit, sitting and chatting with patients, watching movies with them, accompanying them for tests elsewhere in the hospital, making memorably lousy coffee, and otherwise trying to be useful.
It was powerful and unbelievably painful, because for our patients, admission until death lasted typically a couple of weeks, sometimes a little longer.
We had one patient who was too scared to die because he was afraid of the punishments that awaited him for his lifestyle once he got to the other side.
But eventually, he succumbed, too.
They all did.
It was brutal, but it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
It taught me to appreciate every breath I take, every day I wake up healthy, and the fact that I don’t need meds or doctors or any other hospital-type stuff.
The nurses, as it turned out, were way too busy to be entertained by the likes of me, so the original mission was a failure.
But the overall experience was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
Because the unit had been recently redone, we were also the overflow location when the VIP unit was full.
One of my most memorable encounters came with a VIP who had been stashed in one of our rooms, a fearsome captain-of-industry type with a massive bullet-shaped bald head and a terrifying mien.
He also had a goiter on his neck the size of a grapefruit.
When I came into his room to see if he wanted some company, he looked me up and down in my little hospital smock, my requisite white jeans and white sneakers, and gave me a disdainful, withering stare.
“How much do they pay you to do this?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied, not liking this guy. “I’m a volunteer.”
He shook his head firmly.
“I would never do anything for free,” he said.
And no, he didn’t want company.
I left his room feeling about four inches tall, but my day brightened when I remembered that I did not have a goiter on my neck the size of a grapefruit.
Maybe if he had a better attitude, he would have had a smaller goiter.
But what do I know about stuff like that?
I wasn’t a doctor.
Just a volunteer.
Who didn’t meet any nurses, but ultimately, that just didn’t matter.