"Hello, everyone. My name is Billy. Really, what I want to do here is just to talk a little about how I feel and what's going on with the insanity of AIDS and its implications. I've been to 36 funerals for friends who have died of AIDS in the last three months and it's getting to be a bit much for me . . . . "
This message from Billy, 31, a former ambulance worker who is being treated in a San Francisco hospital for AIDS symptoms, is one of the hundreds received by an Alexandria computer network that is devoted exclusively to discussions of sexually transmitted diseases.
Billy dispatched his fears and thoughts via a personal computer and telephone lines into an anonymous, electronic bulletin board where questions are answered and advice is supplied by strangers nearly a continent away.
AIDS, like other diseases, has spawned the self-help groups that are a large part of the social network supporting chronically ill people in the United States. But this disease of the 1980s has embraced the technology of the 1980s, using computers to achieve human connections often impossible to accomplish in person.
The network is part of IDK Enterprises, a computer service that runs several such public access computer bulletin boards. It has been in operation since June 1984 to link "patients, friends and the worried well," according to its founder, Sid Balcom, a computer consultant in Arlington. The use of the board is free; unlike other boards that IDK runs, there is no subscriber charge or connection fee.
"We don't want to limit its access," Balcom explained. "We know the only cure for AIDS right now is public education."
The bulletin board was the idea of Chip Lenkiewicz, 27, of Arlington, a photo lab manager who works in Crystal City. A former hot line worker at the Whitman-Walker clinic, the District's health center for homosexuals, he discovered that many telephone callers were fearful that their voices might be recognized.
As a subscriber to one of IDK's general bulletin boards, Lenkiewicz realized the potential of the service and persuaded Balcom to establish one for sexually transmitted diseases. There are about 5,000 computer bulletin boards throughout the country on various topics, but Balcom and others said they have not encountered another one devoted to this subject.
The forum works well for sensitive, confidential topics, Lenkiewicz added.
"Computer publishing is a very safe forum," he said. "It's an underground meeting of sorts. People can call in from work. Young adults call in after their parents have gone to bed."
AIDS educators have other uses for computers. An AIDS data bank, CAIN (Computerized Aids Information Network) was established in November 1984 by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center.
It contains the weekly federal statistics on AIDS cases, Associated Press reports, and articles, transcripts and meeting notices for those who pay subscriber and access fees to a national data base firm.
"The majority of our material is very clinical, very technical," said David Smith, administrative assistant to the network, which is partly supported by the state. "We don't get people talking about their feelings."
The network is an efficient way for those afflicted or worried about AIDS to keep up with the disease's quickly changing medical developments. CAIN's records show about 300 people sign onto the network each month. The Alexandria bulletin board, which emphasizes the emotional well-being of its users, logs about 90 callers a month, Balcom said.
"Many of those affected are well-educated, computer-literate people who naturally communicate with computers," said Balcom.
Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, said: "This is a confidential way that people can get access. In some localities, where there is no trustworthy information, this can be the only easy way."
Because modern technology is so much a part of the detection, treatment and research on this disease, AIDS educators say that it is a logical extension for computers to handle some of the emotional and educational needs of those who are afflicted.
"It fits," said David Brumbach, volunteer coordinator in Montgomery County for HERO (Health Education Research Organization), a Baltimore-based group. "The AIDS crisis hit smack dab in the middle of the communications boom. So many things are breaking so quickly -- you need an information warehouse."
"In our support group in Baltimore, an interesting fact has surfaced: We realized that not a single AIDS person has fit into the typical experience of the dying individual . . . . There has not been a single person in this city who had died from AIDS who has accepted his death . . . . I would like to know your thoughts on this matter."
Some questioners are answered by Lenkiewicz; others by those "listening in" on the board.
"Some of the questions are so frighteningly easy to answer," said Lenkiewicz. "The public is still asking, 'Can I get AIDS from a toilet seat' type of thing."
The network distributes available material on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, Lenkiewicz said, but it does not dispense medical advice.
"One of the most touching moments was from a caller who had lost his job, his apartment and was just not getting the human interaction he needed," he said. "He was grasping at straws, and I think we helped."