‘Quiet Heroes’ Looks at the Early Days of an Epidemic
In 1982, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw introduced a news story about a strange and alarming disease: “Scientists at the national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta today released the results of a study which shows that the lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer.” That cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, was being called “gay cancer” by some. The disease itself quickly became known as AIDS.
As anyone who lived through this period knows only too intensely, these were dark and desperate times for the nation, let alone the LGBT community. Thankfully, a number of sorely needed champions and crusaders arose. Two of them are featured in Quiet Heroes, a documentary that aired in August on Logo Documentary Films.
The film focuses on two lesbian medical professionals in Salt Lake City, Utah – physician Kristen Ries and nurse Maggie Snyder. At the start of the AIDS crisis, Ries was the only physician in the state who was willing to see patients who had the disease. Later, at the height of the epidemic, they fought cultural stigmas and legal conflicts to care for HIV and AIDS patients when nobody else would.
Quiet Heroes is riveting – and sometimes tough to watch. It premiered as the “Official Selection” this year at Sundance. Directing the film were Jenny Mackenzie, Jared Ruga and Amanda Stoddard.
Ruga says his biggest, and perhaps the most disquieting, discovery upon making Quiet Heroes “was how little things have actually changed in 40 years,” he said. “We’ve thought we’ve made a lot of progress – and in a lot of measurable ways we have, obviously, there’s no question. … But some of the stigma and some of the cultural shame attached to being a member of the LGBT community is almost identical today as it was in the early ’80s, particularly when you get out of big metro areas and away from the coasts, and into other parts of the country.”
Ruga, an out-and-proud filmmaker, explains that the idea for the documentary began when the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, where he was a student, was putting together a special archive collection about Ries and Snyder comprising the photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters from patients that they had kept over the years.
A law professor of Ruga’s brought this new exhibition to his attention, he said. “And I said, is there any book or movie or something that could be made on this that could get this story out to a much larger audience?”
At this point, he said, he hadn’t met the two women yet. “And I didn’t really know the full extent of their story,” he concedes. “Once I learned it, I was like, ‘Yeah, people need to know this.’”
Ruga was getting his master’s degree in documentary film, and he asked his professor whether Ries and Snyder might be interested in participating in a documentary.
“Within a couple of months, we had gotten them on board, and the rest is history,” Ruga said.
Early in the film, Elizabeth Clement, associate professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah, observes: “HIV and AIDS was the number one killer of gay men between 35 and 45 from 1985 until 1996.”
Ries had recently graduated cum laude from the Medical College of Pennsylvania with a specialty in infectious diseases and had just relocated to Salt Lake City in 1981, just when her expertise would soon be needed most.
“Salt Lake City got AIDS early on,” Clement continues. “so it was just luck—it was a gift, that someone like Dr. Ries had just moved to the city.”
“It was on June 5, 1981,” Ries recalls, “the very same day the CDC published a ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’ describing cases of a rare lung infection in five young, previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles.”
The film describes the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Salt Lake City in the 1980s that was very attractive to younger gays. Ries recounts how when she approached the local health authorities for assistance, the answer was that they weren’t getting involved.
Longtime AIDS survivor Peter Christie of Salt Lake City’s Ballet West also shares his memories of this time.
“It happened really fast,” Christie said. “We had a number of people … disappear. You just didn’t see them anymore.”
Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis remembers the case of Robert Michael Painter, 34, who became the first official fatality in the area from the epidemic on Sept. 19, 1983. “From there, it just became a torrent.”
When Ries needed to admit her patients to a hospital as their conditions became too dire to treat elsewhere, she faced a shortage of willing hospitals. Interestingly, the only group that would to assist them was the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who offered their Holy Cross Hospital.
Making the situation all the more peculiar, as Ries recollects, was that although her upbringing was devoid of prejudice, the one group her parents were suspicious of was Catholics.
Working with the nuns, she created “Med 3”—the first AIDS ward in Salt Lake City. This is where Ries met Maggie Snyder, a young nurse who would share the burdens of the incredible fight they were facing and become her longtime partner, both professionally and personally.
The filmmakers effectively balance the political and medical information with the human cost behind it all.
For instance, we’re reminded that in more than 30 states, laws were passed making it punishable, and sometimes even a felony, to knowingly transmit or put others at risk for contracting HIV and AIDS. One of the most controversial bills passed by the Utah state legislature in 1987, sponsored by Republican Sen. Stephen Rees, made it illegal for people with AIDS to marry. The law threatened to invalidate any marriage if one partner contracted AIDS.
Also interviewed is Beverly Stoddard, the daughter of the late AIDS activist Cindy Stoddard Kidd, who helped change this and other laws due to her adamant belief that no one was going to invalidate her marriage, much less on the grounds that she was HIV-positive. Her groundbreaking lawsuit against the state of Utah effectively had that law overturned and paved the way for overturning others like it.
Beverly Stoddard provides glimpses into her late mother’s vulnerability, which was as much a part of her experience as her strength was. In several home-video clips, we see Kidd in a noticeably weakened state, desperately trying to make peace with her situation while preparing for the worst.
Ruga and his associates also spoke with Kim Smith, a long-term survivor of HIV and the widow of Steven Smith, who was a closeted gay man, one of many within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who were counseled into heterosexual marriages and fatherhood. When speaking of her late husband, she pensively remembers how they sincerely believed that they could simply “pray away the gay.”
“Nobody faced it with more hope and faith and determination that we did,” she insists.
Kim was diagnosed as HIV-positive first, and Steve continued to test negative—for a while. Ironically, she relates that even in the face of his illness — and his growing understanding that his sexuality wasn’t something he chose, Steve and Kim grew decidedly stronger as a couple and in their faith. However, once her husband was diagnosed, his condition progressed rapidly, and he succumbed to the disease in June 2000.
By 1985, Ries had seen about 40 infected patients. Her other patients, those who were not suffering from HIV or AIDS, largely abandoned her. Ries and Snyder say that whenever they saw one of their patients around town, they were hesitant to even acknowledge them, fearing that they might “out” them on all levels. And such information —or even “guilt by association” – could cost people their job, their reputation or their family.
“It’s a very small town,” Ries says ruefully. “Everybody knew everything about everybody!”
Snyder shares the heart-felt sadness she feels to this day, because back then, “We were supposed to heal people. Instead, we were preparing them to die, helping them get their affairs in order and such.”
After 500 patient deaths, she said, she simply stopped counting.
Among all of this emotionally exhausting work, however, they managed to find one another. The nuns they were working alongside each day never let on about their budding relationship. But others, like Kim Smith, took the opposite view: “It’s almost like they were one person.”
Among her other battles, Ries also led the fight to make it easier to obtain AZT, the first medication to make a noticeable impact on the virus. Initially, the drug could be overwhelmingly expensive – and even asking for it under a company’s health-insurance plan could cause someone to lose their job.
Ries and Snyder said that when someone did pass away, often their families would give the women their unused medication, knowing that many others might literally be dying to receive it, but unable to afford it. On more than a few occasions, they would persist in filling out paperwork, even if a patient passed away while waiting, in order to help their estates pay for the outstanding medical bills. For all of her efforts, the doctor was named one of Newsweek magazine’s “Unsung Heroes” in 1988.
Despite all the valiant work that the Sisters of the Holy Cross did, in due time, they were forced to declare bankruptcy and close their hospital – but not before 1995, when medical advances brought about another breakthrough treatment by combining three separate drugs, which quickly became known as “the cocktail.” It heralded a new kind of antiviral medication that, almost overnight, restored better health to record numbers of people and brought everyone involved a new and lasting sense of hope.
The last section of the documentary is optimistic, if somewhat bittersweet, facing all the “could-have-beens” and “should-have-beens” that survivors carry with them regarding their fallen comrades.
Now retired, Ries and Snyder talk about how they’re both enjoying their less-hectic life together. They feel reassured by the recent breakthroughs in managing the disease, slowing its progression and preventing its transmission.
The film concludes in 2016 at Salt Lake City Hall, where the mayor proclaimed “Dr. Kristen Ries & Maggie Snyder Day” to recognize and show gratitude for their efforts, including taking numerous brave stances when no one else would.
“HIV changed everything,” Ries attests in the end. Kim Smith, also at the ceremony, adds: “They were there in the trenches when nobody even knew what this was and nobody knew what to do – and nobody knew how to advocate. They’ve been through this journey from the very, very beginning.”
As the documentary prepares to enter this new, larger phase of its release, co-director Ruga says: “I know some don’t want to hear how there remains this stigma around HIV and AIDS and want to sweep it all under the rug. No! We’ve got to talk about it. We’ve got to get people educated, and I hope that this film opens the door to these discussions that can be uncomfortable sometimes for people.”
Quiet Heroes can be seen streaming on www.LogoTV.com.
On Nov. 20, First Run Features will release the film onto iTunes.
Starting Dec. 11, it will be available on DVD.