Alternative Medicine: A Poem by Rafael Campo

978-0-8223-5587-8_prToday is World AIDS Day. Poet and doctor Rafael Campo has been caring for AIDS patients for decades and he often writes about his experiences. This poem is from his most recent collection, Alternative Medicine (2013).


Alternative Medicine

Wednesday afternoon HIV clinic

“Pray for me,” she asks, her head covered in
a polyester scarf. She doesn’t hide
herself for shame; she’s lost her hair. We think
it was the AZT. She says that through
the walls of all her suffering, she thinks
she hears God’s distant voice when her young son
reads from his new storybook. She’s so proud
he’s learning English. “Pray for him,” she asks
before she leaves, “that he may have enough
to bury me in a fine new white dress!”

He weighs less than ninety pounds. Years ago,
he was a bodybuilder. Muscular
and tanned, he looks like someone else back then,
the photograph he shows me faded now.
“You know, even my cock has shriveled up,”
he says. “No one would want to fuck me now.”
He undresses very slowly; I count
his ribs while he fumbles with the blue gown.
When I touch him, he avoids my eyes, stares
up at the blank ceiling instead, and cries.

I see him sometimes when I’m walking home.
He holds his children’s hands, refuses to
acknowledge me. I know his viral load,
his T cell count, his medication list,
as if these data somehow pinpoint him.
Enveloped in the park’s expanse of snow,
his two small children bobbing next to him
like life preservers, I remember that
he’s leukopenic. Snow begins to fall
again, innumerable tiny white flakes.

The rescue regimen is failing too.
He lives alone in an AIDS SRO,
once had two little shih-tzu mixes he
was forced to give up—the neighbors complained
about the barking. Not depressed, he says.
Not suicidal. Still taking his meds.
He watches Oprah, gets a hot lunch daily.
I write the orders in his chart. He says
it’s funny, since his mother always said
she wished he’d never been born anyway.

He can’t tie his shoes anymore because
his feet are so swollen. Denies chest pain
but says his heart aches, whatever that means.
Ejection fraction less than thirty now.
Strange that it keeps progressing, since the meds
have kept his virus undetectable.
He says he doesn’t drink, is sober now
for fifteen years. Assessing the edema,
I leave the imprint of my fingertips
anywhere I press down on his taut skin

I think she must be missing doses, since
she hasn’t yet disclosed her status to
her husband, who she fears will leave her—or
worse, if he finds out she’s positive now.
Good question—he probably exposed her,
but that’s not the point. Here’s her genotype:
clean, no resistance mutations at all.
Her virus is wild-type, and so she should
suppress on her twice-a-day regimen.
Either that, or she’s just not taking it.

“I envy you,” he says. “You got it all
figured.” I stare at the computer screen.
“IVDU. That means I’m on dope, right?
Just an addict, right?” Silently, I type.
“You got to write me a prescription, man.
IVDU? A-I-D-S. That’s AIDS.
Can’t you just be happy I’m gonna die
and give me my damn prescription?” I try
to hate him, but write “Percocet” instead.
“Now, that didn’t hurt much, did it?” he asks.

You tell me that like me you must wear gloves
at work, restoring precious paintings at
the MFA. Imagining you bent
intently over some scarred masterwork,
I wonder whether your light touch might heal,
but in another sense: I must protect
us all should suddenly you bleed, while you
expose us to the curious infection
of what is possible to know by life’s
wounds. Even through my gloves, your skin feels warm.

She tells me that her dream involved a cliff—
no, mountain—that she climbed until she reached
its peak. From there, she saw a pristine view:
unending valleys, white-gray glaciers, snow.
The air was thin and she could hardly breathe.
She suddenly began to cough, and blood
poured out of her like song. But in the dream,
she didn’t have tuberculosis yet;
she’s sure she was infected with a lie,
and inside her, it was the dream that died.

I won’t take antiretrovirals, don’t
eat processed foods, and remain celibate.
I will take echinacea for a cold—
I wish all medicines came from the earth
and not some toxic lab where they kill rats
with chemicals they claim “treat” HIV.
I exercise six times a week, and pray
to my own God. I believe that someday
we’ll find the cure, and I’ll be here to say
that one of us survived to celebrate.

Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.


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