Caring For AIDS Patients, 'When No One Else Would'

Dec 5, 2014
Originally published on December 5, 2014 1:07 pm

Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in her 20s when the AIDS epidemic hit her home state of Arkansas in the early 1980s. She took it upon herself to care for AIDS patients who were abandoned by their families, and even by medical professionals, who feared the disease.

Coker Burks, now 55, has no medical training, but she estimates that she has cared for nearly 1,000 people over the past three decades, including her friend Paul Wineland's partner.

She became involved after visiting a friend at a Little Rock hospital where one of the state's early AIDS patients was dying. "The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on him," Coker Burks tells Wineland at StoryCorps in Hot Springs, Ark.

"And so I snuck into his room. And he wanted his mama. And so I marched myself out to the nurses' station and I said, 'Can we call his mother?' And they go, 'Honey, his mama's not coming. He's been here six weeks. Nobody's coming.'

"And so I went back in and he looked up at me and he said, 'Oh, Mama, I knew you'd come.' I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath. I called his mother and I told her that he had died and she said, 'I'm not burying him.' So I had him cremated and I brought him home."

"And you buried them," Wineland says, "when they died, when no one else would."

"I've buried over 40 people in my family's cemetery, because their families didn't want them," Coker Burks says.

"You were the only person that we could call," Wineland says. "There wasn't a doctor. There wasn't a nurse. There wasn't anyone. It was just you. ... You loved them more than their families could. You loved them more than their church could. Now it almost looks like looking back into another world."

"It really does," Coker Burks says. "It was such a horrible time. But we're still standing."

Produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday morning, which is when we hear from StoryCorps - people talking about moments that have shaped their lives. And today, we look back on the early days of the AIDS crisis. Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in her early 20s when the epidemic hit her home state of Arkansas. And she took it upon herself to care for AIDS patients who were abandoned by their families - often by medical professionals who feared the disease. Ruth has no medical training, but she estimates that she cared for nearly 1,000 people since the early 1980s, including Paul Wineland's partner. Ruth and Paul sat down for StoryCorps to remember how she got started. She was visiting a friend at a Little Rock hospital where an early AIDS patient was dying.

RUTH COKER BURKS: The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on him. And so I snuck into his room. And he wanted his mama. And so I marched myself out to the nurses station, and I said, can we call his mother? And they go honey, his mama's not coming. He's been here six weeks. Nobody's coming. And so I went back in. And he looked up at me, and he said, oh mama, I knew you'd come. I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath. I called his mother, and I told her that he had died. She said, I'm not burying him. So I had him cremated. And I brought him home.

PAUL WINELAND: And you buried them when they died when no one else would.

COKER BURKS: Yeah. I've buried over 40 people in my family cemetery because their families didn't want them.

WINELAND: You were the only person that we could call. There wasn't a doctor. There wasn't a nurse. There wasn't anyone. It was just you.

COKER BURKS: You know, they always say fake it till you make it. And I faked my way through the whole thing. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know anything.

WINELAND: But you loved them more than their families could. You loved them more than their church could. Now it almost looks like looking back into a another world.

COKER BURKS: It really does. It was such a horrible time. But we're still standing.

INSKEEP: Ruth Coker Burks with Paul Wineland at StoryCorps in Hot Springs, Arkansas - a conversation that will be archived in the Library of Congress. Ruth recorded another StoryCorps interview with the father of one AIDS patient she cared for.

COKER BURKS: You were one of only three who did not abandon their children when they were dying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I find that absolutely amazing. I can't imagine anyone deserting a child for any reason.

INSKEEP: Hear the rest of that conversation on the StoryCorps podcast. It's on iTunes and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.