Living Through the AIDS Crisis and COVID-19

By Amanda Sangster - September 17, 2020

September 18 is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day – a day to call attention to the growing number of people living long and full lives with HIV. It’s a day of reflection for Moffitt nurse Louisa Rattini-Reich, who worked in the early 1980s at the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis. This year, the day has even more meaning, as she cares for elderly cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Rattini-Reich began her nursing career in Baltimore 44 years ago, many young gay men were beginning to fall ill to rare forms of cancer and pneumonia. At the time, this was referred to as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Later, it would be identified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

Old photo showing nurse Louisa Rattini-Reich at her 1976 graduation.
Rattini-Reich at her 1976 graduation.

At John Hopkins Hospital, Rattini-Reich worked on the floor reserved for patients suffering from AIDS. She says that the lines between health care professional and caregiver blurred, as nurses became extended family members to their patients. “Like today’s pandemic with COVID-19, we had no experience with something like this, but we did the best we could to take care of our patients,” she said.

Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, early AIDS patients were placed in isolation due to the uncertainty of the disease. Although AIDS can’t be spread via airborne droplets like coronavirus, Rattini-Reich says even family members were afraid to touch their loved ones.

“In the beginning, everyone died and so many died without their families,” said Rattini-Reich. “When my first patient came to us, he wasn’t diagnosed with HIV. No one knew what he had.” She and her nursing colleagues brought their patients birthday cakes, celebrated their milestones and supported them as they drifted towards the late stages of the disease.

Rattini-Reich lost four very close friends to AIDS and their memories stay with her with every patient she encounters. “As friends, we rallied behind them because they didn’t have any other support,” she said.

When her good friend Mark exhausted his treatment options, he wanted to compose letters to his dearest friends in his final days. Too sick to write the letters himself, Mark dictated these letters to his partner, Jim, who then delivered them to their intended recipients following Mark’s funeral.

Mark and Jim were later featured on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Rattini-Reich was one of those recipients. In Mark’s final days, she had visited him with her young son in her arms. Through his letters, he thanked her for giving him the opportunity share in her joy of having children and for the acceptance that her own parents had extended to him and his partner. “My parents accepted them when his own parents wouldn’t,” Rattini-Reich said.

Mark’s partner also succumbed to the disease one year later. In 1996, their photo was added to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which was put on full display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. By 2019, the quilt honored over 94,000 people that had lost their lives to the disease.

Photo of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Rattini-Reich (far left) walks the National Mall in D.C. 1996 while the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display.

Much like advancements happening now with research and COVID-19, attitudes changed as more information was discovered about the AIDS. Stigmas began to lighten as research gave way to universal precautions to protect others from catching the virus.

Beginning her career during this heightened time of uncertainty was formative for Rattini-Reich. When asked what advice she would give to nurses starting their careers today during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “Listen to science and follow the guidelines. They will protect you. Brilliant minds have figured out a way to turn HIV from a death sentence into a chronic disease they can live with. Listen to these experts about COVID-19.”

Working at Moffitt, a hospital recognized by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation as a leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality, means something special to Rattini-Reich. Her daughter Emily is openly gay and being a part of an inclusive work culture gives more meaning to her work. “Moffitt respects everyone and accepts that we’re all different,” she said. “Most importantly, no one is left behind. That’s what it means to be inclusive.”

Rattini-Reich with her daughter Emily.

After more than four decades of service, Rattini-Reich still has so much to give. “We can’t save the world and we can’t fix everybody. The HIV/AIDS epidemic taught us that,” she said. “But we try hard every day to make a difference. That’s why I still come to work. I like to think that I can make a difference in just one person’s life. Whether it’s a smile, a phone call or answering a question. I still have something to give. As long as I have that, I’ll keep showing up.”

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