Pete Rodriguez reflects on the AIDS epidemic in Houston.
Editor’s Note: This oral history was facilitated by Lynn Schwartzenburg, a member of The oH Project team. A full transcript of Rodriguez’s interview can be read at https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/93779.
By Brandon Wolf
Pete Rodriguez was working as an emergency-room nurse at Fort Worth’s John Peter Smith Hospital in 1985, when a gay man came in and said he had AIDS.
The staff, following procedure, put on gowns, masks, gloves, and shoe covers—and placed the patient in an isolation room.
Much had changed since 1983, when Rodriguez unknowingly encountered his first AIDS patient—an infant who was emaciated and barely responsive. He assumed it was a case of child neglect. There were needles, there was blood—but no special precautions.
After HIV was identified in 1984, heightened safety measures became standard in emergency rooms. But the pathology of the virus remained a mystery until 1987.
“I knew the basics about it. And looking back on it, there wasn’t that much to know,” Rodriguez recalled. “There weren’t that many medications. You just kind of knew how the virus worked in the body, and how [it was transmitted]. But as far as how to treat it, 1987 was the very beginning.”
Rodriguez’s experiences are now part of an oral history collection called The oH Project, a grassroots effort made possible by Legacy Community Health, the Montrose Center, the John Steven Kellett Foundation, Rice University’s Woodson Research Center, and other individual donors.
Started in 2015, The oH Project has a goal of documenting Houston’s AIDS crisis in 100 oral histories. To date, 29 interviews have been recorded.
As a participant, Rodriguez said his interview experience was cathartic and allowed him to shed a lot of tears in the days after his oH Project interview.
“So many memories I had forgotten came back to me,” he said, likening his situation to post-traumatic stress disorder. “We didn’t have time to grieve back then. There was always another patient to attend to.”
On the Front Lines
In 1987, Rodriguez moved to Houston and took a position as a nurse manager at Park Plaza Hospital’s AIDS unit. The hospital had two floors—a total of 60 beds—devoted to AIDS care.
“There was so little we could do for the patients sometimes, except to make them comfortable,” he said. “We would give a lot of pain medication. The goal was to keep the patient out of pain and not in a state of worry—not in a state of stress.”
Rodriguez recalled that the unit kept a log of patients’ deaths, and they had to purchase a new book after the first one filled up.
“There was so much death,” he said. “I remember one of the worst days was when we had 14 patients in other units waiting to get to our unit, but our unit was full. And again, they were so sick.”
Because HIV breaks down a patient’s immune system, infections that had been previously unknown in young men became major threats. Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), a deadly cancer, left purplish lesions all over patients’ bodies.
Rodriguez remembers one patient with advanced KS. The lesions started at his feet and moved up, leaving his legs looking “like eggplants.” The patient could only watch as the KS advanced to his rib cage. Once it reached there, his lung capacity would be compromised.
“And, like so many patients, he had a picture of himself when he was healthy [that he kept] by his bedside,” Rodriguez said. “No matter how many times you went in that room, you’d look at that picture and look at him. It was such a shock—such a [feeling of] ‘What’s this all about?’”
Gay Men and AIDS
Because the majority of AIDS patients were gay men, and many of the nurses were also gay, bonds of friendship often developed. Some nurses were HIV-positive, which further increased the depth of those bonds. Rodriguez said the nurses became very territorial about their patients, and balked at reassignments away from the hospital’s AIDS unit.
AIDS was a cruel disease, by any measure. The fact that it was largely affecting the gay male community created scenarios never seen before by hospital personnel. Many gay patients had sophisticated tastes, an appreciation for the arts, and a keen sense of style. Rodriguez recalls that Park Plaza patients were often “quite grand.” It was not uncommon to see Persian carpets and artwork in their rooms. One patient even had the drapes from his home installed.
Another patient who was a former Tiffany & Co. employee had boxes of little diamond bracelets and rings. Due to the effects of medication, he kept dropping them on the floor. Rodriguez told him he could only keep one or two in his room, due to liability concerns. The patient was shattered when his “pretty things” were taken to a safe place.
Park Plaza was a private hospital, and life there was different than at county hospitals like Ben Taub. At one time, patients could even smoke in their rooms, but an order eventually came down and ended that. The staff couldn’t imagine denying patients something that brought them pleasure, so nurses would wheel their patients outside when they wanted to light up.
The patient rooms were arranged in circular pods that surrounded each floor’s central lobby. Someone donated a grand piano for the eighth-floor lobby, and local pianists often provided entertainment.
“One time they had a six-foot-four drag queen dressed like Mae West who came on the unit on Valentine’s Day,” Rodriguez said. “All the other units [looked on in disbelief, saying] ‘Oh my God, look at that.’”
A Life Dedicated to HIV Care
Rodriguez particularly remembers the mothers of AIDS patients. “They seemed resigned to the fact of what was happening,” he said. “They were so tired, and yet they were still taking care of their babies.”
In 1992, Rodriguez took a job in the AIDS unit at Ben Taub. He recalls one mother who flew in from Atlanta to be with her son. After arriving, she said she had to deal with her son’s landlord and work on his car insurance papers.
‘What you need to do now is just sit by his bed. He will be gone very soon, probably within hours,’” Rodriguez told the patient’s mother. “And when it ﬁnally hit her, [it was] as if I had slapped her, and she broke down. She says, ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘You have to—just go sit by the bed.’ And she did, and he died.”
Sometimes patients had no family members or loved ones to visit them. The doctors often asked Rodriguez to help his patients understand their conditions.
“It’s okay. You put up a good ﬁght,” Rodriguez would tell them, sometimes in Spanish.
In 1997, Rodriguez left active nursing and began working on grants and programs at Thomas Street Clinic. In 2017, he became a full-time HIV clinical consultant for the federal government’s Health Resources & Services Administration.
Rodriguez was especially passionate as he reflected on the battle for marriage equality: “Those gay couples back then, one [would be] caring for his sick partner until the last breath, knowing that he could be the next person in that bed. And many times, they were. So to just tell gay people they don’t deserve marriage, after seeing that, was such an affront.”
Rodriguez said The oH Project is important because “the people who suffered so much need to be remembered and respected.”