HEAL, ACT UP, AIDS CAREGIVER
Gene Fedorko participated in his first Civil Rights protest in 1963. In the early 1980s, he co-founded HEAL, a grass-roots community-based organization that served free vegetarian and macrobiotic meals to people sick with AIDS and was an ardent member of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international, grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic. He is a medical professional, caregiver, art collector, curator, sexual explorer and Downtown New York fixture. He has kept a meticulous list, THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, of his loved ones, friends, acquaintances, comrades, who have died of AIDS over the decades, with approximately 1,100 names on it.
"I'm going to start crying again. What has always struck me, working at HEAL, working with ACT UP, working within our community and working with patients, was the fucking courage and beauty of dying people. I don't know how these people with AIDS mustered the strength to be as gracious as they were. I would see them in the hospital and they would look like death.
They would say, you look so nice, Gene, thank you for coming. Oh my God, you're such a beautiful person.
They would pump me up. There was so much beauty like that in the middle of the AIDS epidemic.
Later, when I started working for Dr. Bellman, an AIDS physician, I got to know patients on a very intimate level. I would see them day after day, week after week and episodic illness after episodic illness. They would get pissed off and ugly and then would become dignified and beautiful. I feel privileged to have been exposed to this intimacy.
My family, who loved me, would say, Gene, how do you—oh my God, isn't it depressing to be around all those people that are dying?
It wasn't, it wasn’t at all. I found it, in a very selfish way, gratifying because it allowed me to help people. I love helping people. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to. It has been such a privilege to see aspects of peoples’ character in a depth that you could not appreciate in an ACT UP meeting or if you had dinner with them.
When I was with Dr. Bellman—his office was two blocks from St. Vincent's Hospital. Some of the patients were so sick that they had to be immediately admitted to the hospital, but they couldn't walk there.
Dr. Bellman would say, here is ten dollars, take them over in a cab.
This happened all the time, but one time, in particular, the man in the cab with me said, I'm never going to give up.
I assured him that things were going to be okay. That's all I could ever say, things are going to be okay.
When we stopped at a red light, his head fell onto my shoulder, dead.
There was another time—Jesus, I've been through a lot. All the time, all the time, all the time. My other poignant memories are with patients, friends, political comrades and AA buddies.
They were about to be hospitalized, and they'd call me or I'd see them, and they would say, I have to go into the hospital tomorrow, but I'm going to beat this. I'm going to beat this because I know myself, and I'm strong. I love myself.
Then three days later, despite all of that willful determination to live—it was nasty. It was a nasty, nasty, nasty time."