‘Family was not showing up’: Early days of AIDS epidemic in West Michigan

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, and it marks 40 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially reported the first cases of the disease.

In the 1980’s there was very little known about the disease, and the fear and stigma surrounding it meant many patients died alone.

C.S. Pimm was one of the first caregivers in the West Michigan area to care for dying AIDS patients at the time.

She moved back to West Michigan in 1986 and says the culture was very different than where she had been working on the West Coast with AIDS patients.

“I came here to West Michigan and found that they were starting to see cases here in Kent County,” Pimm said. “When I came back in 1986 I had forgotten — or maybe I wasn’t very aware, being a kid — of what the culture was like in West Michigan.”

She began volunteering with the Hospice of Greater Grand Rapids, and became the liaison between that organization and the Grand Rapids AIDS Task Force.

“So I went over to (the task force) and introduced myself … and said, ‘what can I do to help?’ And they said, ‘well, would you be willing to have your name on our board of directors? Because nobody wants to have their name printed as being on the board of directors,'” Pimm said. “Then I realized, oh wow, this is really different here.”

The task force developed a buddy system, to make sure AIDS patients had someone with them around the clock in their final days.

“Family was not showing up,” she said. “We had probably hundreds over the years of these folks who would come home to West Michigan and get off the plane with no one to meet them.”

Pimm says her best memories are when family members showed up to say goodbye to their loved ones, and ended up taking care of other patients as well.

She says she understands the fear and ignorance that people were feeling during those early days, and knows that there will always be someone who needs to step up and lead the way, hoping others will follow in their example.

“When we hope that people will rise to their calling, we can’t always, because they have fear, ignorance, and they just need somebody to do it first,” she said. “That’s just always going to be the case that we have some people that are going to have to follow behind.”

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