Unsung heroes: The true story of the medic couple and Holy Cross nuns who fought on the frontline of Utah’s AIDS epidemic
Their nonchalant heroism is succinctly depicted in ‘Quiet Heroes’, a documentary which tells a heartrending tale of sick and dying patients who had nowhere to turn.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was the number one killer of young and middle-aged people in Utah from 1985 to 1986. Many of those affected died desperate and alone, either abandoned in their homes or in the hospital run by one person in the entire state who was willing to risk all for their care — Dr. Kristen Reis.
Dr. Reis, an Infectious Disease Specialist, came to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1981 to set up her medical practice and it was pure luck which brought her to a city beginning to witness a staggering number of cases of a mysterious disease which had not been identified yet: HIV/AIDS. The disease was curiously targeting homosexual men in the region and that’s how Dr Reis knew that the struggle to treat the patients in a conservative community of Salt Lake City was not going to be easy.
Homosexuality in 1980s Salt Lake City was considered perverse and immoral, and worse, gay men and women were shunned and outcasted by their own family and church at the time. Add a deadly infectious disease to it, and there was no light for homosexuals in the entire state, except for Dr. Reis, her physical assistant and partner Maggie Snyder, and the Holy Cross nuns.
Their nonchalant heroism is succinctly depicted in ‘Quiet Heroes’, a documentary by filmmakers Jenny Mackenzie and Jared Ruga, which tells a heartrending tale of sick and dying patients who had nowhere to turn. Dr. Reis, now retired at 77, tells Meaww: “I saw my first HIV patient when I moved to Salt Lake City and then they came one after the other and eventually most of my practice started handling HIV patients, that’s how it started.”
There was a lot of stigma and fear associated with HIV/AIDS and gradually people started linking the infectious disease with homosexuality. If you were infected with the virus back then, it implied that you were gay, which meant losing the support of your closest friends and family at a time you needed it the most. Even the doctors in the 80s were afraid to treat the patients.
“I noticed nobody wanted to treat these patients, they were all afraid, they didn't want to be doing anything with them. The patients came to their office and they turned them away and I think one of the biggest problems was they never told them was where to go. The patients went from heartbreak after heartbreak looking for treatment until they heard of me. This made me want to care for them even more,” Dr. Reis says. “I know now that those doctors were so afraid to catch something from the patients and take it home to their families. Later on after the epidemic, just a few years ago, my ophthalmologist told me that they all thought I would be dead within a few years. The atmosphere was terrible.”
By 1985, HIV/AIDS became a social disease and Dr. Reis began seeing an increasing number of patients infected with the virus, that is when she got permission to admit them at Holy Cross, a local Catholic hospital, looked after by nuns. The Holy Cross nuns became the defining moment of her quest to battle the disease.
“If it weren’t for the nuns, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Dr. Reis tells us, adding that the entire arrangement worked out in her favor as the sisters were accustomed of caring for people who were stigmatized. “The nuns learned along the way and we all worked hand in hand. We did one important thing that was their idea, which was that we meet once a week. It was really the nuns, Maggie and I, the priest, the social worker, the dietician and some of the nurses, we started meeting once a week for our support system, so we supported each other. The nuns made sure that no one was ever turned away even when they had no money,” the doctor says.
The documentary states that the motto of the nuns treating the patients was “Heal AIDS with love,” at a time when everybody else was rejecting them.
Dr. Reis says that her physical assistant and life partner Maggie Snyder joined the team on the insistence of the head nurse, after failing to find another doctor to help them.
“I had too many patients and I could not get doctors to help. So head nun Jones said that why don't we get a really good nurse, they can go to PA school and come back and join you at the practice, and that's how I got to know Maggie better. Eventually, she took her job hands on and became like an equal partner. We took care of all these things together and always went together for house calls,” the doctor tells of Snyder.
As the epidemic worsened in the region, it broke several families and rendered many jobless as teachers were fired, families disowned their loved ones. The evangelical view prevailed at the time that those infected were sinners. In the Utah Mormon community, some of the local churches recommended that the mothers disown their children who were infected, and they did.
It was then when the social stigma about HIV/AIDS was at its peak when Dr. Reis and Snyder incorporated a backdoor policy in their clinic.
“The backdoor policy came up because if you came to our office and somebody saw you come in, everybody knew you had AIDS and then you were outed. Some people really wanted to come, so we told them that we'll open the backdoor so that nobody can see you and then you can get out of the backdoor. And we were very cautious, everybody, including the receptionist so that people could come and not be outed because of the stigma at the time. There was really so much stigma that at my own practice, other patients left because they were afraid that they will get AIDS,” Dr. Reis says of the policy.
Several of the patients who came to Dr. Reis did not have health insurance or money for their treatment but she and Snyder took care of them anyway. According to the documentary, the medic couple noticed that many of the patients at their death beds gave away the rest of the medicines to them, so they could pass on the expensive drugs to other patients in need. And the medic couple did, despite it being a federal offence.
“I was prepared to go to jail for this this,” Snyder says in the documentary about the secret stash of medicines she gave to the patients. With their compassion and eagerness to take care of their patients, Dr. Reis, Snyder and the nuns nurtured hundreds of life and the quiet heroes never took any credit for what they did in Salt Lake City.