‘Plague Years'

In new book, Dr. Ross Slatten recalls earlier pandemic

Plague Years book cover image

As Chicago, along with the rest of the world, comes to grips with the coronavirus, it's important to remember that this is not the first time the community has faced a health crisis of ginormous proportions.  

Dr. Ross Slotten remembers.  

Back in the early 1980s, Slotten was a young, gay physician when the AIDS crisis hit. In response to that pandemic, Slotten-who is board certified in Family Medicine-became "an accidental specialist," he said in a recent interview with JUF News. 

For the past 36 years, he has cared for more than 1,000 patients with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to AIDS, and has been at the bedside of countless patients who, in the early years of the pandemic, succumbed to the ravages of the cruel disease.  

Known for his medical expertise and advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients, Slotten was instrumental in establishing the AIDS ward, 11 West, at Chicago's St. Joseph Hospital. He also served for many years and in many capacities at the Howard Brown Health Center, which offers specialized care to LGBTQ clients. 

Slotten has written a memoir, Plague Years: A Doctor's Journey Through the AIDS Crisis, which was just released by the University of Chicago Press. For those aware of Slotten's public persona on the AIDS battlefield, this book is a chance to get to know him, blemishes and all, as a compassionate caregiver, wonky researcher, lover of classical music and literature, and traveler to remote parts of Africa and Asia. 

"I'm a nerd," he said, in his self-effacing way.  

As Slotten chronicles the early years of a pandemic, when thousands of gay men, mostly young, almost all rightly frightened for their lives, ended up in his care, he weaves in a portrait of himself as a smart yet awkward Jewish boy from the northern burbs. From age 10, he grew up in Wilmette, where he dealt with family mishegas-marital discord between his parents, children of Russian Jewish immigrants, festered after a business failure-and his own inability to come out to his parents.  

In Plague Years, he also offers a heartfelt meditation on a time many thought they'd never see their way through-and a self-critical look at how he got through it. 

As Slotten makes clear in the book, his coping mechanisms included a high degree of doctorly guardedness and a grueling schedule that allowed little down time to dwell on the seemingly unremitting sadness around him.  

"For 12 hours I had no break, or brakes," he writes. "Go, go, go, go, go. Like a locomotive train hurtling down a track, I would halt only if derailed." 

In the midst of all this, Slotten earned a master's degree in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago and embarked on the study of the life of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist, evolutionary theorist, and contemporary of Charles Darwin. His research on Wallace culminated in the publication of his first book, The Heretic in Darwin's Court, by Columbia University Press in 2004.  

"I have a very good ability to repress things … and to escape," Slotten said, by way of explaining his desire to deflect intense feelings by pursuing intellectual passions.  

Yet Slotten did not stomp out his feelings entirely. The journals he kept during the height of the AIDS crisis, documenting his grief, doubts, fears, anger, and frustration, form the backbone of Plague Years. 

Now, 40 years after the discovery of HIV, there still is no cure for AIDS, though highly effective treatments enable millions to lead long, full lives.  

"The medications are pretty miraculous," Slotten said, noting that since 2004, only three of his patients with HIV have died of AIDS.  

As the public waits for medical miracles to crush the coronavirus, Slotten's words provide a glimmer of hope.  


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