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Another AIDS Casualty

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“The foundation under him crumbled” is how Allumier sees Torres’s drug use. But Torres spins it in a more positive light. “I always say the crystal was for celebration, not to take care of my pain or whatever,” he says. “I was celebrating the fact that now everyone was living and not dying. It seemed like a reason to celebrate, and crystal was a perfect drug for that. You’ve got all this energy. You stay up. You dance.” He adds, “You wanted to feel alive.”

Simultaneously, the horizon for his AIDS clinic began to look bleak. Fewer admissions meant he was no longer the hospital’s rainmaker. And for a long time after the protease revolution, few new drugs entered into research. “Suddenly, we had no grant money, no research to pursue,” says Mary Catherine George. “We went off a cliff.”

The hospital administration began dismantling Torres’s program, relocating his physicians to other departments and putting the operation on a shorter financial leash. Similar constrictions were happening in other hospitals. But for Torres, it was a destabilizing blow. “I felt totally defeated,” he says. “It was tearing me apart.”

He responded with more “celebrations.” “It became the only way of escaping all this craziness,” he says. An acquaintance—a physician’s assistant who specializes in AIDS—watched mutely as Torres slid from losing his presentation materials at a medical conference, to appearing wasted at a gay bathhouse, to wearing sunglasses in his own office, rocking like a junkie. “I’ve been in recovery now for eighteen years,” says the acquaintance. “I would see doctors and other health-care providers who I knew at some gay event like the Black Party. They’d all be higher than God. There was part of me that in one respect was almost envious. I would say to my husband, how can these guys do it? How can they do drugs and still have a successful practice? And then, of course, they didn’t. It eventually caught up.”

“I was celebrating the fact that now everyone was living and not dying,” says Torres. “Crystal was a perfect drug for that. You’ve got all this energy. You stay up. You dance. You wanted to feel alive.”

Many leading AIDS physicians acknowledge the trend among some doctors, which they consider understandable, given the circumstances. “If what happened to Gabriel is one response, there are of course many who responded in other ways,” says Sonnabend, who today is retired in London and, by his own assessment, mostly broke and lonely but untouched by addiction, though he has buried all but one of his ex-lovers and most of his friends. “How can I be unaffected by all of that? How the hell can I be? How is it possible? I’ve been quite hurt.” Dr. Donna Futterman, a veteran expert in adolescent AIDS at Montefiore Hospital, agrees. “If I was a gay man instead of a gay woman back then,” she says, “I would have been dead in five years.”

Doctors were not the only surprise casualties of the protease era. Many heads of AIDS groups and activists have tumbled into addiction, disillusionment, career crisis, or worse. After years of vigilance, many have recently contracted HIV, says the Medius Institute’s Cox. “Having worked in HIV seems to be a risk for recent HIV infection,” he says.

“Of course these people got lost—I almost got lost,” says Rodger McFarlane, the first executive director of GMHC (at age 26), who went on to found and run some of the city’s leading AIDS agencies. “Nobody talks about it, but it was the most fun I ever had in my life. I never got out of bed with so much energy and so sure of what I needed to do and surrounded by the coolest people, who became respected in our fields. It’s like wartime. When are the relationships so immediate, when are the stakes so high? When do you see the impact you as an individual can have and see radical change made? I mean, it was horrible. It was outrageous. And it seemed to take years. But look what we did! It’s historic shit. You don’t have that crack again. You bet these people got lost when they’re not that person anymore. I’m not talking about ego. You’re the hot shit in the biggest disease, and then treatment becomes available, and then what? Now you go to clinic every day and write prescriptions?”

In early 1998, at the suggestion of his colleague Dr. David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, Torres agreed to meet with a wealthy entrepreneur named Bernie Salick, who planned to finance a flashy, holistic AIDS center on Irving Place, in a facility designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. Salick offered him a star’s position there, more than doubling his salary to over $350,000—an enormous sum for someone who grew up as poor as Torres had.

The first thing Torres did after he took the job was buy a house in the Pines, and an apartment in Miami Beach—in cash. Every Friday during that first winter, he flew to Florida to party with a new group of friends, a life he’d never even dreamed of attaining. “I was making more money than I’d ever made and spending more than I’d ever spent,” he says. He almost never made it back to work by Monday morning. He sometimes missed Tuesday as well. “He would call me and say, ‘I’m in the tunnel,’ ” remembers Mary Catherine George, who followed Torres to the Salick facility. “I’d say, ‘Well, get the hell out of the tunnel and get into this office. There are patients waiting for you since yesterday.’ ”


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