Category Archives: Being There

The Silent Treatment

In 1985-86 I worked in the health education department at Kaiser Permanente in West Los Angeles, a 140-bed teaching hospital and outpatient medical center then serving more than 1 million insurance plan members in Southern California. In the department’s small library, we stocked pamphlets and audiovisual tapes on a wide range of health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease.

Kaiser West Los Angeles serves 21 communities in Southern California, including West Hollywood.
Kaiser West Los Angeles serves 21 communities in Southern California, including West Hollywood.

But the hospital, located just minutes from West Hollywood, ground zero in the emerging AIDS epidemic, did not have a single piece of information about the deadly infectious disease.

When I raised the issue with the department head, a registered nurse with a passion for preventive health and nutrition, she looked at me quizzically.

“That’s not an issue for our members,” she said.

“But it certainly will be,” I protested, noting that the disease had already claimed more than 12,000 lives, including 1,688 in Los Angeles County.

To placate me, she said that she would review the available educational materials on AIDS—if I did the leg work and collected them. She didn’t have time to waste on such a low priority.

Actor Zelda Rubinstein is featured in a 1985 public service campaign promoting AIDS prevention.
Actor Zelda Rubinstein is featured in a 1985 public service campaign promoting AIDS prevention.

At the time, safer sex education was in its infancy. I could find education materials from just a handful of nonprofit agencies, including the Shanti Project in San Francisco, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York.

The good news was that all the agencies I contacted were happy to share their resources, including public service ads, brochures and flyers. The bad news was that many of the materials, written in frank language for gay men, shocked my conservative boss at Kaiser.

Our meeting to review the materials went quickly.

I placed the stack in front of her, explaining that none of the large health-education companies had produced anything on AIDS. But, I added, we could either use these materials I had collected from AIDS service organizations or we could produce our own.

She frowned as she perused a Shanti Project pamphlet describing the importance of wearing a rubber. Then she pushed the small stack of materials back across the table at me.

“These are inappropriate,” she explained. “I can’t use them.”

A 1985 public service ad in San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter.
A 1985 public service ad in San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter.

The meeting was over. Within a few months, so too was my short career at one of America’s largest health providers.

The experience at Kaiser was one of the reasons I launched a video production company focusing primarily on health education. In the next few years I produced one of the first educational videos on AIDS prevention for minority youth and a pioneering video for the parents and caregivers of children with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Mark Katz established the first HIV-dedicated clinic at Kaiser West Los Angeles in 1988. By that time, AIDS had claimed another 5,068 lives in Los Angeles County.

The medical center is now a leading provider of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention services in Southern California.