T his is what it was like fighting for AIDS patients' lives during the Republican '80s:
The patient was weak, near death, losing precious body weight by the day. His doctor recommended an expensive intravenous-feeding treatment in hopes of kick-starting the man's immune system.
The hospital refused.
"The attitude was 'This man's going to die, so let him die,' " Dr. Scott Hitt recalls. "I explained to the family that the procedure probably wouldn't have been any use. But I knew that the real reason was economic."
This is what it was like fighting for the attention of politicians back then:
A county official cornered Hitt and other gay activists at a public meeting to ask why an ACT UP member had spray-painted his office door.
"I remember telling him, 'You just don't get it, do you?' " says Hitt, who is not in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). "People are dying and you're not doing enough. Sure, you're spreading the word about the epidemic but you have to do more. Time is running out.' "
Today, money and promises are a little easier to come by. But Hitt's AIDS patients are still dying.
Each time he enters his Beverly Hills clinic, he finds young men and women waiting in the tiny examination rooms, their expressions a bitter blend of fear, guarded hope and resignation as they confront some unbridled, otherworldly army.
At 35, Hitt has already seen hundreds die, many of them his friends. And so the faces that crowd his mind are more than just snapshots of a perplexing medical war--they are images from a lost generation he has known and loved.
For six years, he has specialized in AIDS treatment as a partner in the Pacific Oaks Medical Group, one of the country's largest and most aggressive private health-care providers for HIV patients. Hitt sees more than 600 HIV-positive men and women, and another 250 with full-blown AIDS.
Each night, with his healing efforts done, he starts a second life as a gay activist: staging fund-raising and strategy meetings at his Hollywood Hills home, speaking his mind to benefactors and politicians, clattering at the computer keyboard, working for "The Cause."
Indeed, AIDS activists say, Hitt is an influential cog in the local gay political machine and has recently become a serious contender for an appointment to the President's AIDS Commission, a policy-making advisory group.
Along the way, though, the doctor has learned that political activism can be a tightrope walk: He was accused in 1991 of violating a patient's privacy for political purposes, and the fallout endangered his career.
Without the encouragement of friends and supporters, he might have snuffed out his own activist fire. And the loss would have been profoundly felt.
"I put Scott Hitt in the top 10 astounding figures I've known since working on national politics over 34 years," says David Mixner, a Los Angeles political consultant described by Newsweek as "the most powerful gay man in America."
"He knows what needs to be done. He's already doing it."
Eric, a studious-looking man with a shadow of shaved red hair, is struggling through the early days of AIDS, worried that a neck rash is a bad sign of things to come.
"I had this zit on my chin that turned into a hideous thing," he says with a look of boyish revulsion. "The scab fell off and it's all weird. Now, it's moved to my neck."
As Hitt examines the rash, Eric continues in a stream of consciousness: "I'm stressed out, Doctor. I just feel like there's this gunk flowing through my blood. I can't sleep at night. I have these nightmares. . . ."
And so it goes. Hitt listens to such stories a dozen times a day at his clinic. Sometimes, they turn out well. Eric's rash is not AIDS-related. And later in Hitt's office, where a poem by his lover hangs, the doctor revels in a patient's favorable test results: "Hey, that's great! That's good news! That's really good news!"
On rounds at the Immune Suppression Unit of Midway Hospital in Hollywood, where Hitt has worked in the past few years, the mood is more grave. The very worst cases lay in white-washed rooms--anonymous save for a lover's photograph pinned to a wall--men on the cusp of death.
For these patients, Hitt can only try to answer their questions, explain the newest treatments and offer heartfelt hope and good humor.
Because AIDS is a whole grab bag of conditions that may appear alone or in gangs, he often feels like a kid with one of those plastic fortune-telling eight balls. Turn it upside down and see which malady will strike next: pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, wasting syndrome, Kaposi's sarcoma. . . .
Each day, there's a new mystery.
In one baffling case, a patient inexplicably lost his ability to speak coherently during a night out with friends, his thoughts suddenly pouring out in the garbled language of sickness.
CMV retinitis also ambushes the unsuspecting.