Nurses on the inside: Ellen Metzer and Valerie Hughes
By Anthony T. Eaton
In 2020, I sat down for a candid conversation with two remarkable healthcare professionals, Ellen Metzer and Valerie Hughes, about their book “Nurses on the Inside.” During our conversation, we delved into their journey, challenges, and the profound decision to share their story through their compelling book. Their tale, situated at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, captures a tumultuous period of fear, ignorance, and a dedication to humanity that ultimately led to their book’s creation.
A Pivotal Decision
“Nurses on the Inside,” was published in 2019 and was a culmination of a two-year journey that began in 2017. The spark for this project came during a reunion with Ellen’s childhood friend, Professor Lane. Recognizing the importance of their experiences, Lane insisted that they put their story into writing. Ellen initially brushed off the idea, but, over the summer, her thoughts began to coalesce, and she found herself pouring her memories onto the computer screen. The project began as a solo endeavor, but something was missing, and Valerie was soon brought into the fold.
Valerie recalls, “My strongest memory of prewriting the book was jotting down a bunch of stories, and then when you and your mother and Kenny came over to the house, and we had lunch, and I was in the back, I had all the stuff already written, and you had all the stuff already written. I realized that it could really happen.”
Their shared experiences, captured with eloquence and poignancy in the book, serve as a testament to the dedication of two nurses when the world was grappling with the AIDS crisis.
Early Days of the Epidemic
Their recollections of the early days of the AIDS epidemic shed light on the fear, uncertainty, and lack of information that prevailed. As Ellen notes, “There was no HIV specialty.” St. Claire’s Hospital, the first designated AIDS unit, was desperate for nurses. The lack of resources, even basic amenities, was staggering, yet Ellen and her former husband embarked on this journey with nothing but a fervent desire to help. The fear was palpable, and as Valerie recalls, “People were so afraid that they would not come and work with people with HIV. Nurses who had worked for years and years would refuse to go into the rooms.”
Valerie emphasizes the lack of information and the isolation healthcare professionals felt in those early days. “You were looking at Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review; the only thing that you looked at for any information. Even the New England Journal didn’t have much,” she says.
These stories highlight the parallels between the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the inequalities in access to healthcare and the enduring stigma associated with these diseases.
The Impact of HIV on Their Careers
The decision to dedicate their careers to HIV care was not one they anticipated. Valerie explains, “We thought we were in our end sub-specialty, which was intensive care. We thought this is where we’ll be forever.” The absence of a specific HIV specialty meant that they paved their own paths in the field.
Ellen shares her journey to St. Claire’s Hospital, recalling a New York Times advertisement for the first designated AIDS unit. “I’ll never forget the saying, ‘Make your contribution to human health when your contribution can be most crucial.’ I remember saying to my former husband at the time, ‘We need to go there,’ and then there I was.”
St. Claire’s, despite its dire reputation and rundown facility, became the grounds for their transformative work in HIV care.
Lessons from the Past
Their experiences and the release of “Nurses on the Inside” prompt reflection on the parallels between the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. As Ellen notes, “Who has access to care, who has access to education, who has access to services? There are so many pangs of familiarity for us.”
Valerie concurs, emphasizing the inequality and prejudice that persist in healthcare. “There’s still that very strong level of stigma and prejudice and inequality in AIDS care and in healthcare in general.”
The conversation is not complete without discussing the emotional toll of their work. The fear, stress, and sometimes apathy they encountered from both patients and colleagues are recounted in their book. Ellen, at one point, questions, “Do you think we help?” It’s a question that weighed on them during their arduous journey, and they both acknowledge the challenges.
Valerie underscores the importance of seeing patients as human beings, not just as cases. She believes that cultivating this perspective is crucial, especially in healthcare. Their experiences reveal that, even in the face of fear and adversity, humanity can prevail.
A Profound Legacy
The interview with Ellen Metzer and Valerie Hughes sheds light on the resilience, compassion, and dedication that characterized the response to the AIDS epidemic. Their book, “Nurses on the Inside,” not only chronicles their personal journey but also serves as a testament to the importance of seeing every patient as a fellow human being.
The parallels between the AIDS crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlight the enduring challenges and disparities in healthcare. Their story is a reminder of the importance of empathy, understanding, and unity in the face of adversity, and their dedication continues to inspire future generations of healthcare professionals.
Nurses on the Inside is available on Amazon along with Ellen and Valerie’s most recent book, Beyond the Mask