AIDS arrival in Vermont remembered

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(Host) As the nation marks the 25th anniversary of the first diagnosis of AIDS this year, one doctor remembers the disease’s arrival in Vermont and the concern and confusion surrounding that first case.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) One day in 1982 the year after the first AIDS cases in the country had been reported, Doctor Howard Weaver was on call at the Rutland Regional Medical Center when a man came in complaining that it hurt to swallow. As a gastroenterologist, Weaver ran some tests on the man and found the results unusual. Eventually, Weaver concluded that the man might have a newly documented disease called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome – AIDS.

(Weaver) “Well, we’d heard of it. We were beginning to see it in our literature and we were reading about it. For our standpoint here in rural Vermont it seemed to be more of a big city problem and we were wondering if we would even see much of it here in Vermont.”

(Zind) Weaver says there weren’t infectious disease experts in Vermont as there are today. There was no one in-state with any expertise to treat his patient.

(Weaver) “Fortunately, there were some referrals to doctors in New York City who were treating these patients regularly that I could call when this patient would come in with a complication, I said,’ Well what do I do now’.”

(Zind) Weaver also convinced his patient to travel to New York for additional treatment. But little was about AIDS. Thumbing through Vermont newspaper stories about AIDS provides a reminder of how frightening it was:

1985 – “Fear of Aids may affect Vermont CPR courses.”
“Red Cross Blood Banks depleted because of AIDS fears”
1986 – “High School Student who has AIDS may be dismissed from school .”
1987 – “Mosquitos not known to be transmitters of AIDS”

(Weaver) “His wife told me you were the only one that would take him on as a patient. I asked around and we couldn’t find any doctors that would want to touch this case.”

(Zind) Weaver says the Vermont medical community was fearful of his patient and the disease.

(Weaver) “I had trouble dealing with it for care in our hospital. I recall our pathologist at the time. He said, ‘If this man dies, you won’t want an autopsy will you?’ We were afraid, as physicians. We didn’t know how it was passed on to others. We didn’t want to be exposed to this weird disease that was killing everyone.”

(Zind) Weaver says he reasoned that as long as he used common sense, he would be able to avoid contracting the disease himself.

Weaver’s patient died about two years after his diagnosis and as Weaver didn’t continue to treat AIDS patients. He still practices as a gastroenterologist in Rutland. Other physicians trained in infectious diseases took on the rising number of AIDS cases in Vermont.

Since that first case in 1982, 446 cases of AIDS have been diagnosed in the state. Many others have been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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