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Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis

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In 1992, Dr. Ross A. Slotten signed more death certificates in Chicago—and, by inference, the state of Illinois—than anyone else. As a family physician, he was trained to care for patients from birth to death, but when he completed his residency in 1984, he had no idea that many of his future patients would be cut down in the prime of their lives. Among those patients were In 1992, Dr. Ross A. Slotten signed more death certificates in Chicago—and, by inference, the state of Illinois—than anyone else. As a family physician, he was trained to care for patients from birth to death, but when he completed his residency in 1984, he had no idea that many of his future patients would be cut down in the prime of their lives. Among those patients were friends, colleagues, and lovers, shunned by most of the medical community because they were gay and HIV positive. Slotten wasn’t an infectious disease specialist, but because of his unique position as both a gay man and a young physician, he became an unlikely pioneer, swept up in one of the worst epidemics in modern history. Plague Years is an unprecedented first-person account of that epidemic, spanning not just the city of Chicago but four continents as well. Slotten provides an intimate yet comprehensive view of the disease’s spread alongside heartfelt portraits of his patients and his own conflicted feelings as a medical professional, drawn from more than thirty years of personal notebooks. In telling the story of someone who was as much a potential patient as a doctor, Plague Years sheds light on the darkest hours in the history of the LGBT community in ways that no previous medical memoir has.


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In 1992, Dr. Ross A. Slotten signed more death certificates in Chicago—and, by inference, the state of Illinois—than anyone else. As a family physician, he was trained to care for patients from birth to death, but when he completed his residency in 1984, he had no idea that many of his future patients would be cut down in the prime of their lives. Among those patients were In 1992, Dr. Ross A. Slotten signed more death certificates in Chicago—and, by inference, the state of Illinois—than anyone else. As a family physician, he was trained to care for patients from birth to death, but when he completed his residency in 1984, he had no idea that many of his future patients would be cut down in the prime of their lives. Among those patients were friends, colleagues, and lovers, shunned by most of the medical community because they were gay and HIV positive. Slotten wasn’t an infectious disease specialist, but because of his unique position as both a gay man and a young physician, he became an unlikely pioneer, swept up in one of the worst epidemics in modern history. Plague Years is an unprecedented first-person account of that epidemic, spanning not just the city of Chicago but four continents as well. Slotten provides an intimate yet comprehensive view of the disease’s spread alongside heartfelt portraits of his patients and his own conflicted feelings as a medical professional, drawn from more than thirty years of personal notebooks. In telling the story of someone who was as much a potential patient as a doctor, Plague Years sheds light on the darkest hours in the history of the LGBT community in ways that no previous medical memoir has.

30 review for Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jim Coughenour

    One afternoon in 1985 (or 1986?) I sat by a large square fountain below the 57-story mass of First Chicago. In the next hour or so I expected my doctor to call me with the results of my first HIV test. At that time a positive diagnosis meant only one thing: you would die, probably soon. I did what almost anyone my situation does: wondered what I’d do with a few final months of health, and what I’d do when it failed. I was already a “buddy” for a guy from Southside Chicago whose life was slipping One afternoon in 1985 (or 1986?) I sat by a large square fountain below the 57-story mass of First Chicago. In the next hour or so I expected my doctor to call me with the results of my first HIV test. At that time a positive diagnosis meant only one thing: you would die, probably soon. I did what almost anyone my situation does: wondered what I’d do with a few final months of health, and what I’d do when it failed. I was already a “buddy” for a guy from Southside Chicago whose life was slipping further away every week, so I had no illusions. The call came an hour later: I’d tested negative. My doctor, barely older than I, could guess what anxiety I’d been living with since my test earlier in the week. He conveyed my good fortune by making a light joke. After the call I sat for a while in shocked relief, gradually returning myself to the land of the living. That doctor was Ross Slotten. I left Chicago in 1991, leaving behind friends and acquaintances dying of AIDS, and finding new ones in San Francisco. Even in these months of COVID-19 it’s hard to recall the raw cold terror of those days, the grief that never seemed to heal because so often refreshed. Easier to remember the bravery of those young doomed men, the courageous altruism of the lesbian community who filled the breach, the doctors and scientists and activists. And novelists, poets, artists, comics. Culture and unexpected human kindness flourish in adversity. So — from then until now I had little idea what had happened to Ross. Our relationship was strictly professional, I was one of his many young gay patients, each grateful to find a doctor who understood so much. This book, which I ordered as soon as I saw it mentioned, fills in the gaps. Obviously its appeal will be limited — but for those of us who survived, or for readers whose friends and family did not survive, this is part of the story. Ross also emerges as a character of courage and integrity, of emotional ups and downs, and of compassion. I’m grateful he wrote it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Mock

    Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis by Ross A. Slotten, M. D. "In the twenty-first century, young people don't know anyone who has died from AIDS, so they are less afraid." p 211 That statement is the reason this book is needed. As we struggle with COVID 19, people tend to believe they are invincible - they fear nothing and tend to ignore health advice. Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis is a very personal, yet accurate and professional, Chicago history of Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis by Ross A. Slotten, M. D. "In the twenty-first century, young people don't know anyone who has died from AIDS, so they are less afraid." p 211 That statement is the reason this book is needed. As we struggle with COVID 19, people tend to believe they are invincible - they fear nothing and tend to ignore health advice. Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis is a very personal, yet accurate and professional, Chicago history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as viewed from the perspective of a "physician who happened to be gay." In, at times, gruesome details, it describes the dark days of the beginning of the pandemic - when no one knew what it was, to the ravages of death that followed: "...a death rate of 98 percent. Only rabies has a higher fatality rate than untreated HIV. No other infectious disease in human history has had the potential to kill a greater proportion of those exposed to it than HIV. One hundred or even fifty years ago, AIDS might have wiped out much of humanity." p. 183 "For those who lived through the worst period of the epidemic, this book could bring back memories of an era that we all hope will never be repeated. For those who didn't experience that terrible time, or who've forgotten how terrible it was, let my chapters serve as a warning to the complacent and ignorant: untreated HIV is as ruthless as any terrorist and as destructive as a nuclear bomb." p. 3 Because Dr. Slotten is both gay and a human being, the epidemic took its toll both professionally and personally: "How close we always are, I think, to death." p. 17. The epidemic forces our protagonist to deal both with his religious beliefs, his sexuality, and his own mortality. Even as he was exposed to the virus, and the traumatic experience of waiting several weeks for an HIV test result - something I experienced myself, but with different results - his resolve never wavered. "I witness the death struggle [e]very day. Unable to intervene, I watch the beast stalk its victims and feel the pain as it sinks its teeth into its thrashing target, as if I were the target myself. The malevolent hunter haunts me." p. 121. As HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) developed, and HIV became a chronic disease, the book turns on a positive side. However, the cost of HIV therapy continues to be outrageous. Many, especially in third world countries, can't afford the cost of these life-saving medications. Prevention continues to be the most cost-effective way of eradicating the disease. Yet, little is done in the public health arena - especially where it's needed the most - developing countries. As we deal with our current epidemic - COVID - let no one tell you that your life is worth saving the economy. Just like the four H's: Homosexuals, Haitian Americans, Hemophiliacs, and Heroin users were considered "dispensable" by the Ronald Reagan Administration - costing millions of loses to their respective communities - don't let the Trump administration, sacrifice seniors, black, brown, and sick people to his desire to save the economy. History tends to repeat itself!

  3. 4 out of 5

    willowdog

    As someone who has survived the AIDS crisis, buried over 80 friends, and nursed a lover for three horrible years until he lost his battle with the virus, I found this book to be very revealing and heartfelt. Slotten's account of the years as a young doctor on the battle lines against this disease is able to take one to the fight and make one realize how challenging this fight was for the doctors who were confronted with patients dying and so little means to help them. As as a doctor who signed t As someone who has survived the AIDS crisis, buried over 80 friends, and nursed a lover for three horrible years until he lost his battle with the virus, I found this book to be very revealing and heartfelt. Slotten's account of the years as a young doctor on the battle lines against this disease is able to take one to the fight and make one realize how challenging this fight was for the doctors who were confronted with patients dying and so little means to help them. As as a doctor who signed the most death certificates in Cook County during the crisis years, he is very honest in his portrayal of the doctor's role--"unconsciously I gave myself permission to excuse myself from my feelings and painful decisions." Layered into to this account, the author gives us his memoir of his journey to acceptance as a gay man, his respite to remain sane in this battle, and the effects of this challenge on his personal life. This honest look at the doctor's role and struggles is worth the read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Koen

    Most excellent memoir by a doctor who was at the frontline of the AIDS crisis from the very start. I had seen this book before but only picked it up after seeing, and being touched by, the Channel 4 drama It's A Sin. Both come recommended. Especially in this time of another epidemic it's striking how many similarities there are between the AIDS epidemic of the 80's and the early days of the Covid pandemic. The differences perhaps are even more striking. Slotten does a great job of conveying the har Most excellent memoir by a doctor who was at the frontline of the AIDS crisis from the very start. I had seen this book before but only picked it up after seeing, and being touched by, the Channel 4 drama It's A Sin. Both come recommended. Especially in this time of another epidemic it's striking how many similarities there are between the AIDS epidemic of the 80's and the early days of the Covid pandemic. The differences perhaps are even more striking. Slotten does a great job of conveying the hardships of those days and the devastation that swept through the Gay community. A community the doctor was himself a part of.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    For those who want to know more about the experience of an MD working at the center of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, this delivers. An intimate and circumspect look at how the epidemic transformed part of this city and its citizens. Easy to imagine teaching this alongside “The Great Believers” in a course that addresses historical fiction and memoir.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    This is an inspiring and intimate look at a young doctor who had the steel, in the early days of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, to show up, fight for the afflicted, help establish treatment and hospice centers, puzzle through untested protocols, raise funds. Most important, the reader meets someone who communicated with and treated his patients and their families with honesty, bravery and compassion. I was lucky enough to have Dr. Slotten as my own general practitioner for 15 years while living in This is an inspiring and intimate look at a young doctor who had the steel, in the early days of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, to show up, fight for the afflicted, help establish treatment and hospice centers, puzzle through untested protocols, raise funds. Most important, the reader meets someone who communicated with and treated his patients and their families with honesty, bravery and compassion. I was lucky enough to have Dr. Slotten as my own general practitioner for 15 years while living in Chicago. I had only a hint of the difficulties he was facing with so many others in his care, and found the stories of life and death in this book so educational and moving, hard as they were to read at times. Many reviews, and much of the marketing for this book including the sample Kindle chapter, might paint a pretty grim picture of its contents, but there's so much more here: the author making his way as a student and young professional, navigating the challenges of coming out, fumbling through (as we all did) the various stages of his first relationships, exhilarating in a life of travel and the arts. The writing is clear and colorful, dramatic and detailed. Another reviewer here suggests that if you read only one book about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, to turn to "The Great Believers" instead – I disagree, and urge that if you've read and enjoyed that great book, consider this book as "the story behind the story." As a record of Chicago history, LGBTQ history and medical history, this memoir serves as an important document. Young gay guys – and I'm thinking of many I've come across in Boystown who seem not to have a clue of their sexual privilege and freedom – will do well to sit down with this book, and earn an invaluable education of the fate they've been spared.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Dionesotes

    This is a well-written journey by a doctor who was a major contributor in treating AIDS patients in Chicago. He describes not only his professional involvement, but he includes his personal saga as a gay man. Quite easy to understand, it’s not written in heavy medical terminology. As a gay man who lived through the years when the medical community was grappling with AIDS as an unknown, so much of this came flooding back to me. This is truly a worthwhile retrospective and an explanatory read!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Warman

    Moving. Slotten's work is incredible; when so fee doctors took on treating HIV positive patients, he showed genuine care / leadership. As a read this memoir, I could feel some of his vulnerabilities and emotions poured into the ink. However, there were a number of times where I felt frustrated with his attitudes regarding activists. Nevertheless, as a young gay man living during this era, this book felt necessary to read.Thank you for your contributions to humanity. Moving. Slotten's work is incredible; when so fee doctors took on treating HIV positive patients, he showed genuine care / leadership. As a read this memoir, I could feel some of his vulnerabilities and emotions poured into the ink. However, there were a number of times where I felt frustrated with his attitudes regarding activists. Nevertheless, as a young gay man living during this era, this book felt necessary to read.Thank you for your contributions to humanity.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    I had certain trepidations about reading this book as I lam an optimistic person who lives in the present, looks forward to the future and seldom looks in the rear view mirror. I lived through the AIDS crisis in the 80’s and 90’s with my late partner Frank who was diagnosed by the author’s partner Tom Klein with Kaposi Sarcoma, an HIV related illness…..so revisiting this painful period of my life and this sad chapter in the global gay Community did not seem to be a good investment in my time. How I had certain trepidations about reading this book as I lam an optimistic person who lives in the present, looks forward to the future and seldom looks in the rear view mirror. I lived through the AIDS crisis in the 80’s and 90’s with my late partner Frank who was diagnosed by the author’s partner Tom Klein with Kaposi Sarcoma, an HIV related illness…..so revisiting this painful period of my life and this sad chapter in the global gay Community did not seem to be a good investment in my time. However, I was disabused of that sentiment by my Chicago urologist Paul Yanover who read Slotten’s book and highly recommended it. My usual habit is to read 20 pages to get a flavor for the subject and writing style and then either discard the book or to go full bore and read the rest of the book in one full swoop if it appeals to me. In this case, I couldn’t put the book down not because I’m enthralled with a disease that caused a horrible death to so many gay men but because of the honest and clear writing style of the author and the challenging period that young doctors like him lived through in attempting to treat a disease with no known cure at the time and an extremely high mortality rate. The author successfully interweaves how this tumultuous period affected his own life as a son, lover and physician which I found quite fascinating and heart wrenching. While any gay person living through the AIDS crisis knows the tremendous toll that this scourge took on patients and loved ones, in this book we come to understand that physicians treating persons with HIV did not come out of this crisis unscathed and also suffered mightily in many ways. It was illuminating to read about this crisis through the lens of a gay physician. I highly recommend this book not only for those of us who survived this crisis and those loved ones left in the wake of it, but more importantly for those who were not yet born or did not live through this period. Bob H Chicago

  10. 5 out of 5

    Monica Maher

    Excellent account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic by a young gay physician written with exceptional heart and sorrow. Took me back to my earliest years in nursing when so many young gay physicians I worked with were fighting so hard on behalf of all these bright and talented and beautiful young men and trying to save their lives from the literal plague of a disease that ravaged their bodies and stole their souls. Resurrected my memories of those I cared for and helped to cross over with Excellent account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic by a young gay physician written with exceptional heart and sorrow. Took me back to my earliest years in nursing when so many young gay physicians I worked with were fighting so hard on behalf of all these bright and talented and beautiful young men and trying to save their lives from the literal plague of a disease that ravaged their bodies and stole their souls. Resurrected my memories of those I cared for and helped to cross over with dignity. Beautifully done memoir and account of the times when acceptance of them was hard to come by amid so much fear and distaste related to lifestyle. Godspeed to each of them.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ann Fisher

    If you're going to read just one book about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, let me recommend The Great Believers instead of this one--perhaps just because fiction can make a better, and in this case fuller, narrative. But this one, from a physician's perspective, is also well worth reading for a glimpse of the intense professional and personal despair of a gay physician signing more death certificates than any other doctor in Illinois during the plague years. If you're going to read just one book about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, let me recommend The Great Believers instead of this one--perhaps just because fiction can make a better, and in this case fuller, narrative. But this one, from a physician's perspective, is also well worth reading for a glimpse of the intense professional and personal despair of a gay physician signing more death certificates than any other doctor in Illinois during the plague years.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Caryn

    This personal journey through the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and 90s provides a perspective that we should all hear: that of a doctor treating what felt for so long like a lost cause. Dr. Slotted compares it to a war, leaving millions traumatized, physically changed, or dead. I’m really glad I read this. We should remember, so we can learn, honor, and respect. I read this book right after finishing the excellent fiction work, “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Malkah. The books paired perf This personal journey through the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and 90s provides a perspective that we should all hear: that of a doctor treating what felt for so long like a lost cause. Dr. Slotted compares it to a war, leaving millions traumatized, physically changed, or dead. I’m really glad I read this. We should remember, so we can learn, honor, and respect. I read this book right after finishing the excellent fiction work, “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Malkah. The books paired perfectly, since both center on the same period of time in Chicago.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bob Olsen

    This is not a pleasurable read, as one could guess from the title, but it’s an important story, and Dr Slotten’s memoir of being on the front line of the battle against the AIDS epidemic is told with skill, empathy and surprising candor. As a longtime patient of the author, I’m surprised he found the time to write this revealing memoir of his life as a gay doctor treating AIDS at the onset and peak of the epidemic

  14. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Zawadzki

    A very necessary read for any member of the queer community, especially young gay men with no memory of the AIDS Crisis. Dr. Slotten puts unimaginable tragedy into words and reveals the heart-wrenching reality that many around the world still face. I teared up, laughed, and overall feel lucky to have an insightful look into a dark period in history from a unique perspective.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    Outstanding on many levels. A wrenching account of being on the frontlines when AIDS was a matter of hopelessness. But also a fascinating memoir of the author’s life as a gay man in a period of drastic transition. And of course the story of HIV ultimately becomes one of cautious hope.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Excellent, compassionate, engaging. We owe much to Dr. Slotten and those who endured the AIDS crisis to bring us better care. Well worth the read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mpysson

    I read this because it took place in Chicago during the AIDS crisis. I found it awkward at times and that parts of it dragged a lot. I think if I didn’t live in Chicago and know where the specific places he referred to were, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite as much.

  18. 4 out of 5

    vanessa johnson

    Heartfelt and honest Dr Slotten may occasionally wonder whether he is emotionally cold, but given his work over the past 30+ years, I'm pretty sure he's anything but. Plague Years catalogues the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of a gay physician. Dr S recalls attitudes and events surrounding the disease with consummate skill, but it is the portraits of his patients that really shine out. As the stories unfold, we understand the terror and dread that accompanied these poor individuals. To have a life Heartfelt and honest Dr Slotten may occasionally wonder whether he is emotionally cold, but given his work over the past 30+ years, I'm pretty sure he's anything but. Plague Years catalogues the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of a gay physician. Dr S recalls attitudes and events surrounding the disease with consummate skill, but it is the portraits of his patients that really shine out. As the stories unfold, we understand the terror and dread that accompanied these poor individuals. To have a life ending diagnosis (as it overwhelmingly was at the time) would be horror enough, but when it came with the prejudice and cruelty that AIDS engendered, the difficulty of just living must have been enormous. At several points in the book, I found myself wondering how doctors like Dr Slotten were able to carry on practicing during the 1980's and 90's when the prognosis of so many patients was so bleak. That he and others like him did continue is truly remarkable and testament to the best of humanity.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Janel

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mika

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Brandenburg

  22. 5 out of 5

    Martha

  23. 4 out of 5

    Matt Graham

  24. 5 out of 5

    Theresa Meyer

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Paul

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lloydy

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kelsey

  28. 5 out of 5

    Carol Trahan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tyler McGaughey

  30. 4 out of 5

    steven obrien

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