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Photo of bulletin board displaying photo montage of World AIDS Day.

 

Ryan White Voices

Motivations to Stay an
AIDS Nurse

"I was very disheartened that people were frightened and weren’t willing to take care of this population. My motivation was fueled by this sentiment. It was my anger that made me more headstrong to stay in this field."

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Donna Gallagher: Continued

“There wasn’t very much that we could do at the time,” admits Donna, “but I still knew that something was more than nothing; choosing not to ignore the disease or shun these patients became the one gift I could give. What I did was help ease their pain in the final moments of their life.”

Donna’s motivations to stay an AIDS nurse ran counter to the reasons other nurses gave to avoid it. “I was very disheartened that people were frightened and weren’t willing to take care of this population. My motivation was fueled by this sentiment. It was my anger that made me more headstrong to stay in this field.”

Because there was so much stigma at the time, not only just in health care but also in the community, Donna created strong relationships with her patients. “It was like we shared a secret bond,” she explains. “For many of the patients I took care of it was a secret to either their community or anyone outside their family. For some it was even a secret from their immediate family.”

The families weren’t the only ones who needed to share their secret with someone, however. Donna craved the professional interaction she had in other fields. “This was before we had the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. There were no professional support groups for HIV,” she says. This helped create the setting for AIDS nurses to seek out one another while attending oncology conferences.

Donna explains, “A lot of original AIDS nurses started out in oncology, and since no one broadcasted what they did because people didn’t approve, we really formed a type of secret society of HIV nurses. There were only a handful in the country involved in HIV care and ultimately we bonded together and supported each other but it was a search mission for a while to even find one another.”

One of the main issues discussed at these secret meetings was the impact of losing entire families all at once. This was something that nurses previously hadn’t dealt with. “The family that impacted me the most had three sons, all hemophiliacs,” says Donna. “They all died, as did the two [married sons’] wives. The parents were suddenly left alone—AIDS wiped out their entire family. It is devastating and overwhelming.”

These situations are now rare in the U.S. thanks to advancements in drugs and a further understanding of the virus among the health care community, which has prolonged the duration and quality of life among HIV positive individuals. In Africa, however, this has not been the case.

A Repeat Performance

Donna, like many HIV nurses, still continues to do the bulk of her work in the U.S., but has made time to share her expertise abroad. “Going to Africa to help in AIDS care is like being put back into 1982,” says Donna, who has been taking the information and lessons she’s learned struggling as an HIV nurse to those still suffering from the disease overseas.

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