In 1988, I began volunteering with a community-based organization providing care to AIDS patients. I am not even sure to this day why I chose that path, but I wanted to make a direct difference in the lives of people at their most vulnerable. This was a grassroots organization with no government funding; just a group of people wanting to be part of a turning point in history.
This was way before “treatment cocktails” and other therapies had been developed, and death was fast, but at the same time, agonizingly slow. The vast majority of cases were young people confronted with gruesome, painful symptoms from which every day was torture. Suicide was a choice some made when the situation became intolerable. The method of self-deliverance was not the gentle death they had hoped for, but traumatic methods that left those who loved them with horrific memories of the brutal ways in which they died.
That was probably the most interesting experience of my life, and certainly played a part in my decision to become a clinical social worker. Through the years I have worked in just about every area of medical social work, but I keep returning to my first loves: hospice and palliative care.
My commitment to this work and my support of Compassion & Choices has led to more than a few frank discussions with friends and family. More often than not, people with whom I spoke were interested and often conflicted. Medical advances, while brilliant, have placed us at a point where ethics and compassion sit side-by-side, not across the table from one another. I am so thankful I get to be part of this movement. It is the right of every terminally ill patient to make this most personal decision.