Personal History – Another Epidemic in my Life, AIDS/HIV – COVID19 #8

When I wrote my earlier entry about epidemics, I didn’t mention AIDS, and if asked, I might have said that the AIDS epidemic had little direct impact on me. But upon reflection, I realized that, though my contact with it was largely through one person, the impact was major.

Bill T hired me for my first (professional) job. I was 23 years old and had a new MSci degree in Chemistry. That might sound like a stretch for a job with the title “Environmental Protection Specialist”, but the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had left the country short of engineers, so the new Specialist title was created, open to anyone with a BS degree. Technically, I was overqualified (no one seemed to care). But more significant (and some people cared!), I was female. Engineering was a male dominated domain. The job I wanted was in a field office. I would inspect factories and institutions for air pollution sources, and investigate air quality complaints. Some potential employers would have discouraged me. Bill T didn’t.

Why did Bill give me a chance? Maybe because he was part of a different minority. He suffered from a chronic illness, hemophilia. In 1973, it was legal to discriminate against both women and the chronically ill. I’d already lost out on a well paid summer job because it was assumed to be unsafe for a woman to be in charge of a public recreational facility.

Bill T was working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (in part) because the private sector didn’t hire anyone whose health care might become expensive.

Bill talked freely about the ways hemophilia (aka “bleeder’s disease”) complicated his life, expressing some surprise that he had survived into his 40s. His background blood level of clotting factor was low but survivable, but any minor injury could cause persistent bleeding. A transfusion of clotting factor would resolve a bleeding episode, but damage might remain. His knees were stiff from bleeding in the joint, and his gait was somewhat awkward. Bill was a popular supervisor and colleague, and his staff was somewhat protective of him. We walked at his pace, and there was usually someone near him, in case he stumbled or lost his balance. This wasn’t planned. It just happened.

Bill offset the expense of clotting factor by donating his plasma for research, as he carried an unusual antigen.

I left my job in Pennsylvania in 1975, keeping in touch with Bill at the occasional professional meeting. Around that time, AIDS emerged globally. In the US in 1981, it was documented in gay men in San Francisco. In 1982, it was determined to be associated with two other populations, hemophiliacs and Haitians. I began to wonder what had happened to Bill.

For hemophiliacs (dependent on blood products for survival), AIDS was a catastrophe. The population of hemophiliacs in the US (1980) was around 10,000, and it is estimated that more than 4,000 of them died. In 1987, techniques to make donor blood safe were implemented, and the death rate dropped.

What did happen to Bill? The last time I saw him was around 1985. We met at a professional society meeting. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I don’t have AIDS!” I was spared the awkwardness of asking. I lost track of him after that, and his name was far too common for me to track him now.

Maybe I’m stretching the point when I say I got an important professional break from a man whose own professional trajectory had been impacted by discrimination. But I know that getting that job wasn’t a sure thing, despite my qualifications. I was lucky. Thanks, Bill!


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