When he was first admitted to the hospital, Suzanne Sandala recalls, she didn't want Jeffrey David Clopper as a patient because he looked like he was going to die.
Sandala, 30, a nurse at George Washington University Medical Center, had worked with AIDS patients before and knew the dangers of becoming emotionally involved with someone so ill. "He was just very, very frail-looking. I remember him sitting in a chair and just looking so blank. I didn't know anything about him, but I didn't want to do anything about him."
Despite herself, she could not help but be affected by the way Clopper, a 29-year-old photographer and musician-artist, faced his death.
"I think the first thing I had to do was get him off a bedpan," she said. "He said, 'I want to do it.' And, I thought, 'This is somebody telling me that they want to do something by themselves? This is a fighter, and as long as he's fighting, I'll fight with him.' "
It also struck her that Clopper had more than the usual number of visitors. "Someone was almost always there, which was extraordinary," she said. "They had set up a support system which was totally incredible."
Clopper's four-year partner, Jerry Davis, a 39-year-old government lawyer, was there so much that the nurses began calling him "Dr. Jerry."
Many nights, about 10 p.m., the two would put on stereo headphones and listen to taped self-esteem messages. Other times, the men would play "visualization" tapes; they'd try to visualize the experimental AIDS medicine, Trimetrexate, as tiny Pac-Men, eating away at Jeffrey's chronic and debilitating pneumonia.
"I'd walk in, and this scene would go straight to my heart, because Jerry would be crying, and Jeffrey would be crying, and they'd be holding on to each other, and Jerry would be laying next to Jeffrey, or laying on top of Jeffrey, just holding on to his hand, crying."
Sandala didn't always want to work with acquired immune deficiency syndrome; she remembers how she felt in nursing school: "No way." Now, three years into her career, she believes she has been blessed with a special gift, and that her mission is to love and comfort victims of this epidemic.
Often, when she does not know what to say, she relies on touch. If a patient maintains hope, she will, too. Her job is to make the last bits of life as comfortable as she can.
"You help them live, and help them live, and help them live. And, as soon as they give you the word and they say 'I want to die,' then you help them die."
Clopper died last May, six weeks after he came to the hospital.
His friends and family had been in the room all day -- his father on one side of the bed, Davis on the other, about 30 others watching. It was Sandala's day off; she been there since before breakfast.
"I got up at the head of the bed," Sandala said, "and I was just kind of hugging him with my arms. God, I remember so much just talking to him. 'Are you trying to tell me you're trying to die?' 'What are you trying to tell me?' 'Just tell me what you want.' And, I was making a lot of promises to him, like 'It's going to be better,' and 'It's okay.' "
Someone flipped on a cassette tape of Clopper's favorite opera: Mozart's "Magic Flute." He lay back on the sheets, eyes closed, and for two hours, he orchestrated the opera with his hands, mouthing the words to his favorite aria -- Pamina's and Tamino's, at the end of Act II: "By the power of music, we walk cheerfully through the dark night of death."
Sandala spoke at the memorial service. She said she and the other nurses didn't understand a lot about gay people, but in watching Jerry Davis and Jeffrey Clopper, she thought she understood what true caring was about.
Looking back, Sandala said she believes Clopper was sent to her floor to die. "But what I also believe, from my strong faith -- what I truly believe -- is that he was sent to this floor for me and for a lot of other nurses here to feel his love, the love that he had to give."