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AIDS: Drawing on hope, nurse documents the legacy of AIDS Unit 371 at Illinois Masonic
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2011-11-30

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MK Czerwiec worked at Illinois Masonic Hospital's dedicated HIV/AIDS ward, known as Unit 371, from 1994-2000, her first job out of nursing school—and it definitely changed her life.

"Who I am today is profoundly informed by the time I spent in that place and the people I met there," Czerwiec said. "Around 2005, when I wanted to learn some details about Unit 371 that I didn't know, such as how it started, I felt certain that a simple Internet search would reveal great stories of this place. But there was nothing. I couldn't find any information about it. So I decided that, as part of my Master's [ degree ] in Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern, I would begin the process of documenting the history of Unit 371.

"I began the process because this project will go on—there is no one person who can write a history. All of us share that history, so all of us need to share our stories and experiences from that place—to commit to audio recording or paper or canvas or film, or whatever media works. I'm just the person trying to gather that together. Part of why I decided to do this project was because I felt documentation of this place needed to exist. Unit 371 has an extremely important place in the history of our community and in the history of medicine. AIDS changed healthcare as we know it, profoundly. And on Unit 371, that care was a partnership; it was delivered in quite a unique way. I wanted to represent this uniqueness, examine it, see what we could learn from discussing all that Unit 371 did and was."

Unit 371 spawned from life and professional partners David Blatt and David Moore, physicians and members of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. Unit 371 treated AIDS patients in a safe environment for partners and other family members, where they could spend unlimited time with beloved friends and relatives.

Unit 371 became a model for AIDS units at medical centers across the U.S.

"The death rate on Unit 371 was higher than any other hospital unit because, for so long, AIDS was a fast-moving, terminal disease," Czerwiec said. "In a month, we could lose 30 patients. Fortunately, that has changed. But, to be there at that time, to have known and cared about, repeatedly worked with the patients and their friends and families, for the staff, this was all too much to handle.

"I'd like to tell you that I heard some magic bullet cure for how any of us did handle it, but my interviews didn't reveal this. My interviews reveal people today who are still trying to deal with experiencing so many losses over such a short time—as the entire gay community is."

Czerwiec, now 44, is now an artist-in-residence at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. She is partnered and a lifelong Chicago-area resident.

"I ended up working in AIDS care unexpectedly," Czerwiec said. "My father died while I was in my medical clinical rotation of nursing school. We had cared for my dad at home after multiple strokes, for seven years prior to his death. Once he died, it was suddenly too challenging to care for patients who reminded me of him. So I planned to drop out of nursing school and find another career. But one of my instructors wouldn't let me. She set me up with a private clinical in AIDS care because she said the patients were, unfortunately, much younger than my dad was, and wouldn't remind me of him. She added, 'Through AIDS, you'll learn everything you need to know to be an amazing nurse—and then some.' She was absolutely right.

"I fail when I try to describe what Unit 371, and [ what ] all the people who went through its doors, taught me. Perhaps that's also part of why I wanted to look at this place more closely through the words of my narrators, the people who were kind enough to let me interview them. I'm hoping they will help me paint this picture, and together we'll all understand better how this place, and AIDS, [ has ] changed us."

Czerwiec, two months ago, interviewed a former patient of Unit 371 and his partner. The partner told her, "We have a very normal life, except for the fact that we see doctors more often than other people might. We don't ignore his sickness, but it does not rule our life."

Czerwiec said those comments stand in stark contrast to what many faced—herself included—during the years when Unit 371 was necessary.

"It's astonishing, really. And wonderful," she said. "AIDS presents many new and different challenges today, as we all know. As a community, we need to keep vigilant, continuing to help those who still need us. We can do this through programs like Vital Bridges, for example.

"The great irony of Unit 371 that emerges quite profoundly in my oral history interviews is that, despite the pain and death we faced there, it was recalled on several occasions as a fun place, a place the narrators actually enjoyed being. One person said, 'At a time of death everywhere, on Unit 371, there was life. Abundant life.'"

Czerwiec brings her oral history of Unit 371 to the Center on Halsted on, fittingly, Thursday, Dec. 1—World AIDS Day.

"The Center is a unique space, open to all, proudly serving the needs of the LGBTQ community. Unit 371 was this type of space as well. So it is a perfect fit," she said.

"World AIDS Day was started in 1988, and it's a day set aside for moving HIV/AIDS, and the impact it has had, into our direct focus. The aim of my project about Unit 371 is to do this as well, so again, it's a perfect fit for me to be sharing this work publicly for the first time, on Dec. 1 at the Center on Halsted."

Czerwiec said attendees will hear stories about the Unit, which served the community from about 1985 through 2000. The discussion will include how Unit 371 began, challenges faced by the staff, the patients, families, the hospital administration, and the surrounding community. "We'll also discuss what elements of Unit 371 were unlike typical hospital units," she said. "This history will be told by some of the people who were there, who lived it."

Before starting the Oral History project, Czerwiec studied with Gretchen Case, an oral historian, performer, creator, academic and more. "We did a one-on-one semester on oral history—the theories, the practice, the art, the pitfalls, the responsibilities, and a few insider tips," Czerwiec said. "It was an intensive learning experience, and then she interviewed me. I wanted to get my stories and thoughts documented so they wouldn't distract me while I was trying to be a good listener for my narrators. I also wanted to know first-hand what I was going to be putting my narrators though [ because ] going back to that time can be quite painful.

"I was very nervous before my interview, afraid that memories and grief would overwhelm me. But, to my surprise, I didn't fall apart, mostly because Gretchen was so skilled. It was a good experience and I was careful to pay attention to how Gretchen did that interview, and we talked about it extensively afterwards. I wanted to do as good a job with my narrators as she had done with me.

"I also want to say that this project would not exist without the amazing support of Alice Dreger, who, upon first hearing of my idea, emailed me that she was crying so hard it was challenging to type. From her perspective as a medical historian, and because of who she is personally, she believed in the importance of this project and fought hard to see it through. She's been an amazing support to me, as has the entire faculty of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern. They got, from day one, that comics and medicine can be a perfect match. Their wisdom and progressiveness in this area has been extremely helpful to me and I am very grateful."

Czerwiec has, amazingly, meshed her ever-so-serious work with her passion for humor through comics.

"While working the evening shift on Unit 371, I struggled to integrate all of the traumatic things I was seeing at work on the one hand, and trying to lead an everyday life outside of the hospital on the other. It was quite difficult. Everything felt completely amiss in the world, and it was," Czerwiec said. "Sometimes it made me crazy that so many people didn't know how bad it was, or worse, didn't care. Those of us in the AIDS community at that time will understand what I mean here. But people who didn't experience the kind of loss, the constant bad news, the constant layering on of another grief, still had expectations of me, fair ones. Like that I wouldn't go to pieces with worry when a loved one got a cough or took a trip. Or that I wouldn't just burst into tears in line at the grocery store.

"Until the right combination of drugs came along, the news on Unit 371 was always bad, almost always the worse-case scenario. And if it seemed OK in any moment, you knew that wouldn't last. It was like a violent storm that went on for years without end. It was exhausting. I found myself losing the ability to function normally in social relations. I still have this aftereffect to a much lesser degree.

"One way I tried to cope was by talking with a therapist, of course, but that wasn't enough. I discovered, much by accident one day, that making a comic helped me to find my way back to some semblance of normalcy and hope. I started then and have never stopped. Perhaps it's because making a box, and only looking at one tiny bit of a situation at a time, helps me to feel less overwhelmed. Making a strip one box at a time forces me to process things carefully, sequentially, and succinctly. That helps. The boxes move me slowly from a static state of grief or confusion through a story, and somehow that little story always ends better than I might have thought it would. Also, marrying text to an image brings our right brain into the situation, and all of those extra resources. When you read or make a comic, you're using your whole brain. How can that not be a good thing? Much has been written on this in neurobiology, but I can testify from personal experience that it's quite helpful."

Czerwiec added: "Perhaps the tradition of humor in comics provides me with the levity necessary to survive. Having said this, scores of graphic narratives now exist that have, as their subject, things that are not at all funny, such as genocide. Comics are a powerful artistic medium. It's an exciting time for comics right now, to be part of the explosion of the medium's possibility. I'm now working with an international group of medical professionals, academics, and comics artists who are working to integrate comics and the medical experience. This is very exciting to me."

Czerwiec returned recently from a trip to the U.K., where she was speaking about, and listening to, many people exploring this idea, both from a purely academic perspective, but also from the experience of making a comic about something traumatic, and finding that it helps.

"It's amazing how people have used comics to make their lives, and hopefully medicine, better," she said. "It was always my intention that the oral history of Unit 371 would be a graphic narrative, and I'm now about halfway finished with that aspect of the project. I'll be sharing images, as well as audio clips, from my graphic narrative during my presentation on Dec. 1."

Event details: Thursday, Dec. 1, 6-8 p.m., Center on Halsted, SAGE Space, $5 suggested donation to support community and cultural events. RSVPs and questions should be sent to Maura Ross at: mross@centeronhalsted.org .

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.


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