A doctor’s journey through the AIDS crisis

Cover of the book
Cover of the book "The Plague Years" by Ross A Slotten MD

Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey Through the AIDS Crisis is a devastating book

Cover your nose and mouth.

Wash your hands with soap and water. Stay six feet away from strangers and those you think might be infected; better yet, stay at home. And that’s how you squash a pandemic—more or less although, as in the new book Plague Years by Ross A. Slotten MD, sometimes it’s not that easy.

It wasn’t until he saw his former lover, Art, that the reality hit him.

Dr. Slotten hadn’t even considered that he’d be at risk for AIDS, though he’d been ministering to AIDS patients for several years by then. He knew the risks, of course, and had taken precautions, but Art was in his far past.

There was a time when Slotten thought he was straight, had dated girls, had imagined life as a husband and father. That changed in college and though he was desperate for love then, he was careful with his heart. He fell for Art, and believed he was in love, but Art slept around with countless men and one night, he broke Slotten’s heart for good.

That was at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It was a lifetime ago, back when Ronald Reagan all but ignored the disease, before treatment was available, before Art was dying.

In med school, Slotten hadn’t intended to specialize in AIDS medicine but as a gay man, how could he ignore those who came to him after he’d opened his Chicago practice? How could he turn his back on them, as did the nurse who placed a gauze pad between her fingertips and a pulse, or the co-worker who felt relief at having avoided mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a dying AIDS patient?

On his rounds, there were times that the best Slotten could do was to give comfort, or a hug, or to keep vigil. He tried to be truthful, always, but denial was a real thing—including denial for Art, who slept with the wrong man or men.

Art, whose illness forced Slotten to take an AIDS test…

Though you may not notice it at first, there’s one thing in Plague Years that will eventually sneak up on you, tap you on the shoulder, and crush you: So. Many. Names.

Before you learn any of them, though, you need the tone-setting biography and background here, and you need to claw your way past the harrowing parts in which author Ross Slotten battles the idea that he might’ve gotten AIDS from a man he once loved. You’ll be well and firmly invested in this book once you get through that, and exhausted, as though you just finished watching a Kubrick movie with a dream sequence set in a full morgue, and there’s more story left.

This is a devastating book, made more so by Slotten’s viewpoint as both gay man and doctor, and by casual reminders of the things we didn’t know then, and the things we know now. Plague Years is profane and blunt and nail-biting and heartbreaking and hopeful, and that pretty much covers it.

Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis by Ross A. Slotten, MD, ©2020, University of Chicago Press, $20.00, 214 pages