Nurses On The Inside: Review by Hank Trout

Nurses on the Inside: The New York City Frontline of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
by Ellen Matzer, Valery Hughes
Tree District Books, LLC

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Everything in Nurses On The Inside—everything, the chaos and confusion, the patients and their illnesses, the blood and the bedpans, the prejudices and compassion, the fear and the bravery, the gasping for air and the tracheotomies, the soiled bed linens and the food trays left on the floor outside a patient’s room, all of it is very familiar. We’ve been there; we’ve seen this movie before; some of us had starring or supporting roles in it.

But even if we think we know the story even before we open the book, it is still very much worth reading. I’ve noticed in the HIV community in the last few years that, nearly four decades into this epidemic, the nurses, mostly women, straight and gay, who took care of us, who courageously stepped to the front lines of the fight against AIDS and led the battle with bravery and determination, are finally getting their due as heroic combatants against the epidemic. Ellen Matzer and Valery Hughes are two such warrior nurses.

Matzer and Hughes have written a compelling, informative, and emotionally charged account of serving as nurses at various New York City hospitals during the first years of the epidemic. The book opens with Ellen in nursing school. In 1979, she and Valery are working in the same hospital. “That was when they became close friends. It was at the beginning of the epidemic—just no one knew it yet.”

Their first indication of what was to come was the case of a sixty-two-year-old French doctor whose shortness of breath advanced to the point where he required tracheal intubation. A biopsy revealed that the doctor had an atypical type of pneumonia called PCP or pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. “I thought you only saw that in compromised immune systems,” Ellen remarked.

“Something is going on,” Valery responded, prophetically, “something we don’t know.”

The oddity of the French doctor’s dying from PCP started to become a “trend” in New York hospitals. Young men, near death and helpless, began crowding ERs and hospitals across the city, and their stays seemed to be getting shorter and shorter, their deaths more violent. As the number of cases multiplied, and the answers remained too few, the fear in hospitals became so pronounced that people with just cold symptoms—especially if they were gay—were treated “like borderline quarantine cases.” Some nurses took to wearing double gloves if they knew the patient was gay, and hospital staff started wearing PPE, personal protective equipment. Other staff thought Valery and Ellen were crazy for not wearing PPE.

Of course, life outside the hospitals had to continue for Ellen and Valery. There were vacations together, weddings and showers, baby showers, births and deaths. Yet hovering over their lives, and the lives of so many others, is the ever-worsening epidemic.

So much in this book is familiar to those of us who lived through the worst days of the epidemic. The religious bigots yelling about “God’s punishment for what they do”; the bodies unclaimed by family or friends; the funeral homes that refused to take anyone who had died of AIDS; the grieving lovers of the dead; the compassion in our caregivers and their frustration at not being able to do more. Again, we’ve been there. The book is still worth a read as it provides a detailed, in-the-trenches look at the early bloody war against AIDS as fought by some of the bravest, most compassionate warriors in that battle, the skilled nurses who cared for us in those darkest days.

I’ve often said that if it weren’t for the powerful women, straight and gay, who rose up out of fear and bigotry to care for us, I and most of my friends would be long dead. Matzer, Hughes, and the thousands of other nurses (some of them men) who confronted AIDS head-on deserve our gratitude. Nurses On The Inside is a powerful portrait of two such women. Read it.

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.