Dr. Andrew M. Faulk has a rare perspective on the stories of people who died from AIDS he retells in his moving book “My Epidemic: An AIDS Memoir of One Man’s Struggle as Doctor, Patient and Survivor.”
Released in August, the memoir is a perfect read for Dec. 1 World AIDS Day observances dedicated to raising awareness about the disease as well as remembering those who died.
In October 1985, Faulk, who is gay, was a postgraduate from Columbia University and the University of Washington training in internal medicine at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco when he learned he was HIV-positive, a status he largely kept private due to the world’s, and particularly the medical profession’s, unwelcoming attitudes about homosexuality and AIDS.
Faulk’s struggle surviving in a homophobic, HIV-phobic country he shares in the book is amplified with candid, touching personal portraits of men with HIV and AIDS, many of whom were his patients — about 50 died of AIDS — who faced the same issues, often succumbing to the ravages of AIDS without support from family and society.
Faulk wishes to preserve the memory of these men as well as tell the story of the epidemic.
“Even though about half of the names have been changed, I wanted these men, and their individual stories, to be remembered,” Faulk says. “And celebrated. These were times of harrowing revelations and catastrophic losses and the men who faced this inferno were extraordinary. Perhaps navigating through the rocks and shoals of growing up gay in a straight world gave these men a special resilience and fortitude.”
As HIV took an emotional and physical toll on Faulk — his declining health, the passing of his partner and a few of his peers, and “goodbye parties” for soon-to-be-departed were particularly poignant experiences — he ultimately stopped practicing medicine in February 1991.
“Many of the faces are lost to the vagaries of memory and attention, but the impact of the personalities, situations, actions and reactions survive in me,” Faulk says. “I am both brutally and lovingly stained.”
Faulk, who lives in San Francisco with his husband, Frank Jernigan, continues his saga after-practice with more personal stories, and is upfront with criticism of the U.S. health care system.
“In the U.S., wealth determines health,” Faulk says. “Decreasing the financial inequities in our nation would do much to lessen the disparities in health, which create a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of financial instability: we know that over 66 percent of bankruptcies in America are due to the inability to pay medical bills.”
On Nov. 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that while the death rate linked to HIV dropped by about half from 2010 through 2018, the improving trend was much less pronounced among women, Black people or people of multiple races. And Faulk cites the disparity among social and economic groups in rates of infection with AIDS as an example of why the U.S. needs universal health care.
“At present, most Americans suffering with HIV are, statistically, the poor and people of color,” Faulk says. “Instituting routine medical care to these individuals would, besides improving their lives, do much in the way of education to inhibit the spread of AIDS. The higher infectivity and greater damage to our citizens of color and poverty could have been mitigated by making health care available to all on a regular basis; a national health care infrastructure could provide this.”
Faulk points out that there has been a pattern of neglect in our nation in how we have dealt with epidemics, with the government’s indifference toward the 1918 H1N1 influenza, which claimed an estimated 675,000 lives in the U.S., a notable example from as far back as 100 years ago.
“President Woodrow Wilson never made even one remark about the pandemic even though he caught it himself in 1919,” Faulk says. “Neither did he mobilize nonmilitary components of the U.S. government to help the civilian population.”
But in “My Epidemic,” Faulk is unsparing in his criticism of the Reagan administration for its lack of attention, either through adequate funding or leadership, on the AIDS crisis, and he echoes his critique of Reagan when faulting the Trump administration for its response to the appearance and proliferation of COVID-19 in this country.
“White Wilson and Reagan ignored the pandemics affecting the U.S., Trump’s response can also be best summarized as neglect, and the federal government’s chronic inattention to public health has hamstrung our abilities to cope with epidemic diseases,” Faulk says. “Our experience with the AIDS epidemic teaches us that ignoring any segment of our population accelerates the spread of disease and its attendant suffering.”
My Epidemic: An AIDS Memoir of One Man’s Struggle as Doctor, Patient and Survivor
Written by: Dr. Andrew M. Faulk