It was a frigid morning last December, and the disheveled man standing before Judge James Gibbons had made his way to the second floor of 100 Centre Street in a thin nylon windbreaker, ill-fitting designer jeans, and a pair of torn jackboots—something out of an old S&M catalogue—which he had accessorized with a wide leather cuff snapped on his wrist. At first he was trembling, as if from the cold. Then the trembling subsided, and his eyelids fell. Dr. Ramon A. “Gabriel” Torres, a near-legendary doctor in the fight against AIDS, had fallen asleep on his feet.
I remembered the first time I had seen him nod off in a crowded room. It was a decade ago, and Torres was the featured speaker at a meeting of top AIDS researchers to discuss a novel way to treat HIV-negative patients who suffered an accidental exposure—a needle stick or broken condom, or a night spent carelessly. At the time, Torres was the director of AIDS programs at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. He was a visionary, responsible for turning a conservative Catholic clinic at the crossroads of the epidemic into a leading research facility, pioneering drug regimens that saved thousands of lives, and bringing AIDS care to homeless New Yorkers, the accomplishment for which he’s best known.
Back then, I supposed that he must have been overcome by exhaustion. Shaken awake by applause, he walked to the microphone in his Armani suit and gave a presentation with all the gravitas befitting his reputation. But he made no sense whatsoever. His words were English, individually well formed. They just didn’t seem to fit together.
When I mentioned this to a friend a day or two later, he said, “Oh, I know. Everybody knows.”
What they knew was that Torres had begun his long romance with drugs. I have since seen him stumbling blurry-eyed and shirtless through the Chelsea night—once I saw him coming out of a notorious West Side drug emporium. There have been reports of drugged encounters in bathhouses, dance clubs, and sex Websites, then arrest after arrest.
Despite numerous trips to rehab, he had squandered his standing among AIDS clinicians and investigators, surrendered admitting privileges, been locked out of his West 23rd Street practice, lost his Chelsea apartment and Miami Beach condo, watched his Fire Island home collapse into foreclosure. He’d accumulated ten criminal charges, some of them felonies stemming from, among other accusations, allegations that he saw patients while his license was temporarily suspended for practicing while high. The first of his trials is scheduled to begin next week. If convicted on all of them, he technically could get as much as 31 years in prison, although somewhere between two and seven years is much more likely.
On the morning he dozed before Judge Gibbons, a simultaneous hearing was taking place in absentia to strip him of his medical license permanently.
“I can’t be in two places at one time,” Torres had whispered to me when he first arrived in court. He showed me a pink slip of paper from the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, then folded it back into his front pocket vacantly. It was the only thing he carried. “I already informed them by phone, fax, and letter that this is going on. But they wouldn’t change the date.”
Torres is one of the untold casualties of the epidemic’s aftershocks. In the decade since AIDS moved from a mostly deadly plague to a largely manageable condition, a surprising number of the frontline veterans of the most difficult years in the fight against the disease have seemed to lose their bearings. Many health-care professionals talk today of feelings of emptiness and disillusionment in the wake of the epidemic’s taming. Some have moved out of the field altogether. For others, drug addiction replaced drug research. Dr. Scott Hitt, the chairman of Bill Clinton’s AIDS advisory commission who died of cancer in November, was stripped of his license for drug possession and admitted to inappropriate contact with two patients. A few years earlier, Jeffrey Wallach, a city clinician with a huge AIDS practice, died of an apparent overdose after years of abusing steroids and other drugs. “I could probably name 50 other docs off the top of my head who were not as well known but were certainly as much on the front lines who have had all different kinds of issues and problems,” says Ken Fornataro, the executive director of AIDS Treatment Data Network, “and that’s just in New York.”
There is no way to know statistically if these stories are more prevalent among AIDS doctors than, say, oncologists. The playwright and activist Larry Kramer, for one, is critical of suggestions that AIDS pioneers have misbehaved disproportionately. But he admits he has heard anecdotes of doctors who made superhuman contributions during the darkest years of AIDS only to fall apart after 1996. “What do they do between 1985 and 1996?” Kramer says. “Huh? That’s eleven years—eleven fucking years. If you’re a doctor in the midst of all of that, and you’ve got hundreds of patients, and every one of them is facing death and is terrified, of course you’re going to crack up. You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t.”