TAMPA — Nearly 20 years ago, nurse Shirley Green didn't know much about the very sick men isolated on a fourth-floor unit of St. Joseph's Hospital.
But one day she watched a doctor sit down on one of the patient's beds. The patient said he'd been alone. No one else got close to him anymore. He began to weep.
"I decided if she can walk in there and sit with this young man and can console him and be fine," said Green, now 56, "why can't I do that?"
The men were dying of AIDS, an epidemic that at the time still mystified much of the public and many health care workers. Green threw herself into the work of caring for the patients on the ward: checking on feeding tubes, fetching pain medication and simply listening to the men. Many of them had families who came neither to their bedsides nor their funerals.
In 1994, she read about a way to honor the patients she was getting to know: the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a national arts project that memorialized the names of those who died from the disease each year.
Green's mother, a retired home economics teacher, taught her to sew clothes for her dolls when she was a child. She couldn't make these men healthy again. But make a quilt? That was something she could do.
So that year, she sewed her first quilt to remember Tampa HIV/AIDS patients who had died. There were 173 names.
Green has made a quilt for World AIDS Day, celebrated today, ever since then.
She thinks of a theme, sketches out a drawing and sets up shop with her Singer sewing machine in a corner of her home, piecing together the quilts in about a week. She sent her first quilts to the national Memorial Quilt project. Others she keeps in storage except for dedication ceremonies.
In some ways, she's stitched a story of the disease.
For one, the number of names has been dropping nearly every year. This year, her river-themed quilt has 10 names — still too many, said Green, but far fewer than the first year.
Those dropping numbers are thanks in large part to HIV drugs helping people live much longer, as well as improved HIV testing that gets patients into care much more quickly.
The dedicated HIV/AIDS inpatient unit, where the night shift crew sometimes gathered around the bed of a dying patient who had no one else, no longer exists at St. Joseph's.
Green now works in the hospital's HIV outpatient clinic, where instead of checking on feeding tubes, she is helping patients find specialists and rides to their appointments.
It's not just the number of names on the quilts that has changed: Many of the patients now are women. Green said older women, in fact, make up the largest portion of the patients she now sees.
Of course, there are developments that can't be interpreted from the quilts.
According to a new report from the federal government, young people between the ages of 13 and 24 represent more than a quarter of new HIV infections each year. Most of these youth living with HIV (60 percent) are unaware they are infected.
Green said it's a troubling change. She worries that too many young people have become blase about HIV because the treatment has improved so much.
One of her most special patients, she said, was a young man who died in 2007. He told her things he couldn't tell his mother. He'd call just to talk. "He was my baby," she said.
But when he got better, she said, he got careless. He stopped taking his medication.
Green said caring for patients, especially when few others wanted to, has been her "ministry."
"It goes back to your heart and soul," she said. "Each one of them gives you something."
Sewing the memorial quilts each year has been her most natural expression of that. "It's to keep the awareness," she said. "But it's also a way to cleanse."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.