Sister Angela Mary Doyle AO, former Executive Director of the Mater Hospitals, and Bill Rutkin OAM, former Queensland AIDS Council President, recently caught up for the first time in 30 years to reminisce on their days at the coal face of the early AIDS crisis.
The early AIDS crisis
Australians first heard of the mysterious new disease in 1981. Early news reports linked it to clusters of injecting drug users and gay men. The disease quickly became identified with those already marginalised groups. Indeed, many referred to it as the Gay Plague.
Australia’s first AIDS death occurred in 1983. Community groups formed across the country to combat the disease and support sufferers. Queensland gays faced organisational difficulties because the Bjelke Petersen government refused to register homosexual associations.
Then, in November 1984, an announcement by Queensland Health Minister Brian Austin lobbed like a hand grenade into Australian living rooms. Three babies had died from AIDS as a result of a blood donation by a homosexual man. (A fourth baby died sometime later.) The Bjelke Petersen government portrayed homosexuals and injecting drug users as a danger to the lives of ordinary Australians.
The nascent Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC, now Queensland Council for LGBTIQ Health – QC) wrote to prominent Queensland institutions and citizens seeking assistance. They received two responses. Sister Kath Burke, Head of the Sisters of Mercy, replied that Sister Angela Mary Doyle, the best nun to provide a response, was currently in Rome. However, the sister added that Sister Angela Mary would reply on her return. Val Gibbs RN, Director of Nursing of the Anglican St Luke’s Home Nursing Service, also responded.
Over the next several decades, the Sisters of Mercy and the St Luke’s Nurses proved essential and unswerving allies of individuals and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.
Sister Angela Mary, SAM
Almost universally known by the acronym SAM, Sister Angela Mary is now a sprightly ninety-six. Bill Rutkin said she remains active and still very much a person to be reckoned with.
“Sister Angela Mary made a unique contribution to the Australian response to HIV/AIDS. SAM showed by example how to live a life of Christian kindness and humanity on a daily basis.
“She never stood on soapboxes or bothered with long policy statements. Instead, she focussed on the delivery of desperately needed resources.
“SAM found us offices, emergency housing, equipment, and medical personnel. She funnelled Federal Health Department funds to QuAC when the Bjelke Petersen government refused to pass them on.
“She shared the Mercy Order’s own resources with compassion. So much more than an administrator, she also shared our tears and silent prayers. I remember particularly when SAM knelt with QuAC volunteers around the bed of a deeply Catholic gay man for the administration of Extreme Unction and a final mass. He passed away as the mass concluded.
“Additionally, Sister Angela Mary argued for and won seats for QuAC at government decision-making tables.”
Elizabeth Taylor with rosary beads
“Together with other nuns who contributed their skills to our care (Sister Dorothea Sheehan was mentioned) the fervour and care of the Sisters became legendary. For Queenslanders, SAM became Elizabeth Taylor with rosary beads.”
SAM and Bill shared many memories during their first meeting in three decades. They recalled a range of events – funny, sad, critical and joyous.
Bill said service delivery during the early AIDS crisis sometimes required pragmatism. The Federal Government tasked the states with distributing Federal health funds dedicated to the disease. That worked well everywhere except Queensland. Premier Bjelke Petersen refused to hand over funds to a ‘bunch of homosexuals’.
Discreet negotiations with Federal bureaucrats resulted in a then-secret work-around where AIDS funding allocated to Queensland went directly from the Feds to the Mercy Order who then forwarded the money to QuAC.
“After spending the first disbursement, we set about scrupulously acquitting our expenditure,” said Bill.
“However, when SAM looked over the accounts, she pointed out that the significant expenditure on condoms, supposedly by the Sisters of Mercy, might raise eyebrows. The report was quickly altered to categorise the prophylactics as medical supplies.”
Trust and friendship
Sister Angela Mary paid testament to the value of the bonds of trust and friendship that developed between her and Bill Rutkin.
“I could have done nothing myself without the trust and friendship that bound us together.
“As the key person at QuAC, he stayed the course through very tough times.
“Our mutual respect enabled us to work long and closely together. We were able to plan and bring to fruition the services and supports those men desperately needed.”
SAM told Bill during their lunch, she still prays daily for people around the world affected by HIV/AIDS.
Bill Rutkin assured Sister Angela Mary that she and her sisters retain a firm place in the hearts and memories of the people who lived through those sad and challenging but amazing days.
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