Rest in Power, Mary Lou!
Mary Lou smiled wide as she spoke to me. Sure, she would help teach a safe sex workshop to the Friday night LGBTQ+ youth group, but first I’d have to come by the clinic myself for a check up. That way I could talk from experience, she justified. She reminded me it was my responsibility as a sexually active adult to take care of these things.
The year was 1992, and May Lou Miller was a fixture at the Bute Street sexual health clinic at what is now Qmunity. I was about 6 months into my volunteer role as coordinator of the youth group when I made the request. I’d previously spoken with a local AIDS service organization about providing a similar educational workshop because, at the time, we were still in the throes of the AIDS epidemic and sitting in our meeting room once weekly was their target group. They insisted on a $100 honorarium which rubbed me the wrong way; we had the money in our account saved up from youth donating their coins at the end of each meeting, but it was intended to cover museum entrance fees, bus tickets and bowling shoe rentals when attendees couldn’t afford them. So I asked for help to do the education ourselves, and Mary Lou agreed, with that one caveat.
At the time she was a registered nurse and I was a queer high school drop-out working at the front desk of the Holiday Inn. I’d moved from Ontario the year prior because I’d heard there was a vibrant, more friendly gay community in Vancouver. Some friends suggested checking out the youth group which was small with only a handful of people attending but included some cute guys, so of course we went.
There I met Dawn, the badass summer intern who quickly saw me as a successor when she went back to college in the fall. After some convincing, I took on the role, and that’s how I got to know Mary Lou. She was always there, frequently calling folks in from the waiting room to give people all sorts of news — some life-changing, I’m certain. There were no effective treatments for HIV at the time — those wouldn’t come for 4 more years.
At my appointment, she took some blood and then invited me to an examination table. Nowadays a urine sample tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia, but back then it was a more invasive investigation involving a Q-tip. I can’t recall how many times she performed that test on me, but every 3 months for 3 or 4 years at least, and everytime I’d grimace and through a clenched jaw I’d repeat “Oh, I love ya, Mary Lou!” Then a week or so later I’d go back to the clinic, she’d fire up the old computer and give me the news. I’d hold my breath each time, and a part of me thinks she did, too.
Word got around about the education sessions we were providing for the queer youth group, which lead to an invitaiton to speak at a Women, Children and Youth AIDS Conference. We were a hit, and afterward I was approached to do some work with the new Youth & AIDS Committee. The youth-focused health promotion campaign we developed received national attention and brought together five youth, myself included, who eventually formed YouthCo AIDS Society, the first youth-for-youth agency in Canada, which still operates to this day. In 1995, I left Vancouver and went travelling, moved to the Island, but still ran into Mary Lou every once in a while.
Fast forward 20 years to Christmas 2019. I received an email from the unit clerk at the nursing home where I am now Medical Coordinator advising me my new patient was named Mary Miller. The name on the email resonated, but I figured it was a common name. Since last seeing her, I had attended Medical school and become a family doctor with a panel of 40 residents at the facility under my care. I reviewed the hospital discharge summary which mentioned the patient was a retired nurse and that got me really curious. The next day, on Christmas Eve, I saw her come through the door and recognized her immediately and my heart grew.
It was an extraordinary full-circle moment.
Over the next 10 months I got to spend some time with Mary Lou. I’d speak of those days in the early 90s and she’d reply “Oh, you don’t say” or some other non-specific comment that made it clear she didn’t truly recall but perhaps didn’t want to disappoint me. I’ve worked in Eldercare long enough to understand the impacts of dementia, so I didn’t take it personally. It would have been fun though, to kick back and have a good old reminisce about those days. I expect she’d have her own memories of me, young and awkward, motivated and community-minded, queer young man.
At our last visit I spoke with Mary Lou and recalled one more time our younger days, and she admitted she did not recall. She spoke little, but she looked at me and smiled. I feel blessed for the opportunity to have cared for her as she did for me.
If you have a memory of Mary Lou, or another outstanding nurse, tweet @DrMarcusG or email me.