On Thursday, August 23, the new documentary Quiet Heroes will premiere on Logo at 8 p.m. The 66-minute film chronicles the AIDS epidemic as it affected conservative Salt Lake City during the 80s and 90s. Quiet Heroes was made primarily to pay tribute to Dr. Kristen Ries and physician’s assistant Maggie Snyder, who worked together on the front lines as the HIV virus spread across Salt Lake City at the dawn of the epidemic, killing everyone it infected.
It’s hard for today’s younger generation to grasp just how bad the AIDS crisis was during those early days. Getting infected meant dying a horrible death very quickly; people’s bodies would be assaulted by a variety of diseases as they literally wasted away. Most of those infected were gay men, and many outside the Queer community saw AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuality. Conservative political columnist Pat Buchanan actually wrote a column titled “Homosexuals And Retribution,” a fact you learn from the film.
“You did not want AIDS because AIDS implies homosexuality,” said Elizabeth Clement, PHD, associate professor of History and Gender Studies at the University Of Utah.
Doctors would turn away AIDS patients, in part due to fear, in part due to homophobia. It was in this environment that Dr. Ries, who had always been interested in infectious diseases, became the only doctor in the city who would see these patients. She and Snyder worked closely together to do whatever they could for the patients, extending life where they could, providing comfort, and doing whatever else was possible to ease the pain of their patients.
“I counted those deaths for quite a while,” Snyder said in the film. “When it got to be 500 I couldn’t count anymore. It was too painful.”
Many people among the general population were terrified to go near anyone who had AIDS; there was fear of contracting the disease. Ries and Snyder had no such concerns. In addition to treating their patients the two women, who are a couple, embraced them.
Ries and Snyder took chances. When a patient died they were required by law to dispose of the patient’s medications, but the two women instead recycled the incredibly expensive drugs, giving them away for free to other patients who could not afford them. They could have lost their licenses to practice medicine, but they stayed the course. They were willing to take risks if it meant saving or even extending lives.
In addition to Ries and Snyder, viewers of Quiet Heroes will also get to meet some of the patients who survived, such as Peter Christie, a former ballet dancer who is now the director of education and outreach for Ballet West in Salt Lake City. Christie recalls getting sicker and sicker, and was not expected to live. But he managed to hang on until 1995, when the drug cocktails became available. Christie regained his health and today lives a full and vibrant life.
Others weren’t as lucky. Kim Smith contracted the HIV virus from her husband, Steve. She ended up helping to care for Steve as he wasted away and died. Like Christie, she survives.
Parts of Quiet Heroes are difficult to watch. The sheer horror of the epidemic’s early days are indescribable. But parts of the film can be quite uplifting. Ries and Snyder, who are now retired, are true heroes who worked with their patients for nearly three decades, getting little if any recognition. With this riveting and important new film, they finally get their due. It’s been a long time coming.
Look for Quiet Heroes August 23 on Logo, and get more info here.
Photo courtesy of Quiet Heroes on Facebook