Coping with AIDS
Coping with AIDSHow my company endured the trauma of losing one of our mostvaluable employees
On a spring day in 1987, I found out my credit manager had AIDS. He sat in my office sobbing and said he had just been told that his test for the virus had come back positive -- contrary to a report he had received the day before. Someone had telephoned to say that the laboratory had made a mistake. It must have been quite a conversation: "Oops, remember that fatal disease we called you about yesterday? Looks as if you've got it after all. Sorry for the mix-up." I tried to console him. I also suggested he take the rest of the week off. He needed time to absorb the news and so, for that matter, did I.
I had plenty to think about, including more than 40 other employees, a partner, and dozens of customers and suppliers, not to mention myself and my family. Steven Fowler was not just any employee. He was one of the people I depended on most at a time when my company was almost doubling in size. Beyond that, he was a close friend. He'd been to my house and played with my children. We'd gone to the beach together. He was in Key West when I took my kids there on vacation, and he came over to visit us. What did I know about AIDS? What did any of us know back then? Maybe we'd all been exposed and were going to die. That really was my first reaction: fear.
Not that I was totally shocked. Steven and I had often talked about his risk of getting AIDS. I had known he was gay ever since his job interview, about five years earlier. He had ridden in on a motorcycle, wearing lizard-skin cowboy boots. In the course of the interview, he told me he was gay. I didn't care. At the time, I was working for another company and needed help booking and tracking orders. Steven was an outgoing guy with a lot of personality. He could take control of a conversation without offending anyone. I hired him on the spot. When I left, a couple of years later, to start my own business, he was the second or third person I brought on board.
He started out in sales, but he could do almost anything. I found that if I gave him a job, I didn't have to think about it again. When you're growing fast, people like that are invaluable because you never have enough help or enough time. So I just kept giving Steven more and more to do. He started handling credit in 1986. By early 1987 we were getting ready to move from 9,000 to 30,000 square feet of office space. Steven did all the floor plans and the office layouts for the new building. He coordinated the efforts of two designers. He worked with all the contractors. Meanwhile he was running the credit department so smoothly we hardly knew it was there.
I relied on him in so many ways. I often used him to vent my frustrations, and he never took it personally or got intimidated. He knew I needed an outlet. And he was always doing something to make us laugh. Once he entered, and won, a newspaper contest for having the most kissable bald head in the United States. Around the office he was everybody's friend. Whenever a new employee was hired, Steven would serve as the welcoming committee, taking the person out to lunch, offering tips on what to do and what not to do. He made a few people uncomfortable, but in general he was very well liked.
None of that counted for much, however, in the face of a disease like AIDS. When the word got out, people were panic-stricken. My partner wanted to fire Steven. "This will ruin our business," my partner said when I told him the news. After I settled him down, I did a little research. I talked to Steven's doctor, my own physician, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and they all assured me we weren't at risk. Nevertheless, my partner and I kept going back and forth for a week, discussing what we should do.
It was worse with the employees. People wouldn't drink out of the water fountain. They inspected the bathroom before using it. I was constantly trying to calm them down. I talked to each of them, one-on-one. I called their husbands or wives. I offered to pay for them to see their own physicians. I gave them pamphlets from the CDC. Sometimes I'd telephone the CDC with the employee in the room, and we'd get the answers right there. It all helped, but the fear didn't go away. Every time I managed to calm one person's fears, somebody else would show up with a new need.
I remember in particular one girl who worked in the same office as Steven. She came in to see me after she heard you could get AIDS by having infected blood splashed into an open wound. "I didn't get a wink of sleep last night," she said. "I kept thinking, What would happen if I were sitting there at my desk with a scratch on my hand, and Steven got cut and began bleeding profusely? I could get AIDS, couldn't I?"
I was speechless. I really didn't know how to respond. I thought to myself, Yes, honey, and what would happen if Steven were sitting there with a hard-on and you accidentally fell into his lap? Finally, I said, "Tell me something. In all the years you've worked here, how many times were people bleeding profusely while you sat nearby with an open crack in your skin? I mean, forget about AIDS. How often have you been exposed to the blood of other employees?" I guess that more or less satisfied her, because she didn't raise the matter again.
I suppose I should have been more tolerant, but I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed. By then the news had gotten down to the customers, and I was hearing from them as well. One of them would call up and start screaming, "Can it be communicated over the telephone? I'm not getting it through the phone, am I?" What exactly do you say to a hysterical customer who's afraid of getting AIDS over the phone? I was angry at people for overreacting, yet I couldn't get too angry, because I knew how they felt. It was such a new disease that you couldn't just tell them, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." You had to say, "Now, now, don't worry." You had to work it through. You had to try to talk them into doing reasonable things -- consulting a physician, say, or calling the CDC.
I suppose someone might ask, Why didn't I just send Steven home? Why didn't I pay him to get out of my hair? He would have been willing. His attitude was, I'll do whatever you want. The truth is, we needed him. He was really that important to the company. I didn't think we could afford not to have him there if he was well enough to work.* * *
So Steven stayed, and I kept talking. I must have spent two months doing nothing but dealing with people's fears. After a while, things began to settle down. Then, toward the end of August, Steven started feeling very tired and having trouble with his breathing. We decided to set up a modem in his apartment, so he could work at home and rest whenever he wanted. He continued to do his job, but he was clearly quite sick. Finally, the doctors made their diagnosis: he had tuberculosis.
Once again, I had a totally panic-stricken crew. To make matters worse, it turned out that Steven had a highly contagious form of TB. People were worried not only that they might get it, but that they might infect their children. One girl dragged me to her doctor, who was very reassuring. He explained that people with normal immune systems weren't likely to catch Steven's TB no matter how contagious it was. Just to be safe, he gave us both tests, which later came back negative. That put my mind at ease, which was important. If I could ease my own mind, I could handle everybody else's anxieties. Back at the company, I started another round of one-on-one talks with people. I told each of them what the doctor had said and suggested they all get TB tests at my expense. A lot of them did.
We got over the TB scare, and a new mood settled in. It was as if people thought, Well, if I didn't get TB, I'm sure as hell not going to get AIDS. So let's leave this hysteria behind and focus on the fact that we're losing a friend.
And Steven was pretty dramatically ill by that time, although I might have been the last to see it. I did a lot of denying right up to the end. He'd always been a bit of a hypochondriac. I told myself nothing was going to happen anytime soon; he was going through a rough period; he could live five years, seven years, maybe longer. I really couldn't face the idea that he was about to die, and I became angry whenever he brought it up. One evening he called me at home. "I can't make it," he said. "I just know I can't make it." We got into a big fight. I said: "Steven, stop talking like that. You're being a baby. You've got to fight this thing. You'll get over it."
It was the last conversation I ever had with him. The next day someone called and told me Steven had been admitted to the hospital. When I got there, he was in a coma. The doctor said he would probably die before morning. I stayed the whole night, and he was still alive when I left for work.
He hung on for a week. There was a group of about 15 people from the company who stayed with him day and night. They were the ones who had worked with him the longest. They went to the hospital in shifts, three or four at a time, and I think they would have quit if I'd told them they couldn't go. The nurses said there had never been an AIDS patient in the history of St. Joseph's Hospital with so many people keeping watch. It just goes to show that they really, really loved him, although they were really afraid of him, too. But they'd had a pretty good education about AIDS, and they felt all right about going into his room, holding his hand, and talking to him.
The last days were devastating to watch. He shrank down to nothing. He was six feet tall, and I'd guess he weighed 100 pounds at the end. I'd visit him after work, but I don't think he knew I was there. His mother was pretty distraught because he looked so bad. She asked me to go in and talk to him -- to tell him, "Please just let go and die." I talked to him for a long time -- not that he heard me. He hung on for another day or two. The following Sunday I got a call in the middle of the night, saying he'd died.
His mother decided to bury him in North Carolina, where he came from. She asked me if I would give the eulogy. She said Steven used to talk about me a lot, and she thought he would have liked me to say a few words. Of course, I said I would.
A huge number of people from the company went up to North Carolina for the ceremony. We got a lot of emotion out that day. A friend of Steven's sang "Ave Maria," in a voice so incredibly beautiful that everybody was reduced to tears. By the time I stood to give my eulogy, I was pretty choked up, but I got through it. I talked about Steven and how unfair it seemed that he had died so young. He had led such a worthwhile life. He had so many friends. Sure, his lifestyle was different, but so what? He was a good person. Anyway, I said it without crying, or at least without bawling. The place was full. Afterward a lot of people came up and told me the things we all knew about Steven -- what an unusual and interesting person he was. It was really great. It was really beautiful.
But the mourning didn't end with the ceremony. There were 15 or 20 people at the company who had been around since the early days, and who had worked with Steven during good times and bad. His death had a very unsettling effect on them and, because they were key employees, on the company as well. There was a lot of grief. I think the whole company grieved, although each person handled it in a different way. Some people seemed to get sick more often. Some people didn't come back to work for a while. Some people were angry all the time. A fair number of people left.* * *
Looking back, I don't think they left so much because of the company, but rather because they needed a change. We all needed a change. It was as if we had had a death in the family. We'd been together for five years, and we'd grown very close, and then one of us had died young, and it didn't make any sense. An experience like that changes you. It forces you to look at your life differently. You begin to question your values and your priorities, your sense of right and wrong. You realize you don't have everything under nearly as much control as you thought, so you're forced to sit up and take a fresh look at the whole picture. It was a life-altering time for each of us and for the company as a whole.
After Steven died the business began to encounter problems. Within six months our accounts receivable went downhill, and I lost control of my credit department, which created all kinds of other headaches. Eventually we wound up in Chapter 11, from which we're just now emerging. I'm convinced we wouldn't have had a lot of the problems if Steven had been around. Even my partner came to see that. He told me later, "God, I really wish I'd been more appreciative of Steven and all he did for the company when he was alive."
We dedicated our new building -- the one for which he'd done all the planning and coordinating -- to Steven. We put up a bronze plaque in his memory. It's a reminder, not just of him but of the experience we all went through. For all the trauma, I think we came away from it with a pretty good feeling about ourselves. It would have been easy to give in to fear, but we didn't. Today each of us can look in the mirror and say, "I did what was right, and I was a real human being, even though there were risks."
I still think about that, and I still think about Steven. He was an unusual person and a great guy. Sometimes I really, really miss him a lot.* * *
Shelia Brants is the cofounder and president of The Super Source Inc., a wholesaler/ distributor of microcomputers and peripherals, in Norcross, Ga.