Attention Must Be Paid
Or weâ€™ll all pay the price
by Sue Saltmarsh
In Arthur Millerâ€™s classic play â€śDeath of a Salesman,â€ť Willy Lomanâ€™s wife tells her sons that â€śAttention, attention must finally be paid.â€ť I thought of her desperation, knowing that her husband was going to die because that attention was not going to be paid, as I listened to the story of Tom Hill.
Tom is one of many who have a horror story to tell about the health care they gotâ€”or didnâ€™t getâ€”when they were incarcerated. He was arrested and contracted HIV in 1982, through tainted blood that he got during several reconstructive surgeries to repair damage from gunshot wounds. He was released in 1983 and it wasnâ€™t until he was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1993 that he was diagnosed with HIV. He was devastated by the diagnosis and struggled with depression until 1995, when a convergence of negative circumstances led to his arrest on drug charges. For the next 14 years, he â€śhad to fight tooth and claw to get the proper medical treatment.â€ť
Attention was not paid. Despite the self-education he pursued about HIV that told him his medication wasnâ€™t working; despite numerous grievances he filed (all to no avail); despite the written recommendation of an infectious disease doctor at the University of Illinois medical center who confirmed his drug resistance and encouraged him to pursue legal action; despite the efforts of Physicianâ€™s Assistant Colgan (who he credits as being the only medical staff person at Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois who was knowledgeable about HIV and who cared about her patients), he was denied treatment for neuropathy, for a hernia and, most importantly, one of the drugs in his HIV regimen was denied him, the order for it sitting on the medical directorâ€™s desk for weeks. Though eventually the problem with medication was resolved, he was not taken to U of I to see his specialist again for the remainder of his incarceration.
Tom Hill was released from prison in July and is getting the help he needs from medical case manager Elayne Owens at Southside Help Center, housing case manager Ira Gates, at the Christian Community Help Center, and Dr. Chad Zawitz at the CORE Center. He is taking anger management classes and complying with the requirements that come with the electronic monitor he wears that keeps him on parole. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago helped to place him in his own apartment and heâ€™s confident that the cooking gas will be turned on soon.
Things are looking up for Tom and he recently had an opportunity to speak about being HIV-positive and to tell his story. His enthusiasm was tangible as he told me, â€śI donâ€™t want people to go through what I went through, on the streets or while theyâ€™re in prison. The information is out there and if you get it, you donâ€™t have anything to worry about, itâ€™s not a death sentence like it used to beâ€”there are organizations, people, out there who will help you. Thereâ€™s no excuse now not to make it.â€ť
I thought it was remarkable that heâ€™d experienced all that he did in prison and yet came out of it not bitter, not angry, but wanting to help.It seems that now, finally, Tom is seeing attention being paid, but not just to himâ€”he wants to be part of the effort to pay attention to others, whether theyâ€™re behind bars or not. As I watched him walk down the hall, the ankle bracelet bulging under his sock, I thought it was remarkable that heâ€™d experienced all that he did in prison and yet came out of it not bitter, not angry, but wanting to help.
I frequently have a little internal tug-of-war when reading the letters that come to us from inmates all over the country. Thereâ€™s the bleeding-heart liberal in me who really wants to believe that theyâ€™re all in prison for crimes they didnâ€™t commit and that if only they could be shown a little love, theyâ€™d be alright. And thereâ€™s the rather cynical realist in me who knows that some of them really are criminals who are being punished for their crimes and who are stuck in â€śpoor meâ€ť mode.
I own that I have little patience with the arguments that their childhood, their race, or their economic background dictated inevitably that they end up in prison. Iâ€™m too firm a believer in empowerment and choice. And, yes, I know that people have to believe they have choices before they can make good ones, but Iâ€™ve seen the proof that itâ€™s possible in too many amazing examples throughout my years in HIV work. Tom is that proof. Arick is that proof. Una and Patrice and Marilyn and Jerome and Abraham are that proof. And the one thing they all have in common is that they paid attention, even when no one else would. They got it that just because you make a wrong, thoughtless, or bone-headed choice once, doesnâ€™t mean that you no longer have the right or the ability to make right, intelligent, healthy choices from now on. They and others like them are the lemonade-makers of the world, and knowing them makes my own â€ślemonsâ€ť seem sweeter.
Breathe deep, live long, and, especially if youâ€™re in prison, find and share some peace.â€‚