I have the pleasure of welcoming Mark A. Jacobson to Diary of an Eccentric today to celebrate the release of his novel, Sensing Light. I’ve invited him to talk about his inspiration for the novel, which is set at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Please give him a warm welcome!
“Gwen found the patient motionless except for the periodic rise and fall of his chest each time the ventilator pumped air into his lungs. She scrubbed his forearm with iodine and alcohol, tied a rubber tourniquet above his elbow, opened an intravenous catheter kit, and donned a pair of sterile gloves. Using the tip of her gloved finger, Gwen stroked his skin, hunting for an engorged vein. Finding a promising bulge, she drove in a needle encased inside a white Teflon tube. Blood appeared. Satisfied she was in the right place, Gwen slid the white catheter off the needle into his vein. She was reaching backward to drop the needle in a sharps container when she felt wetness on her ankle. Turning her head, she saw blood dripping from the catheter onto her leg. Reaching back to pick up a piece of tubing, Gwen impaled the fleshy part of her left palm on the needle she was still gripping with her right hand.
Gwen stared at the needle for a numb moment before pulling it out. Eva crossed her mind. She’s only twelve years old, Gwen thought. Then all thinking was submerged by a flood of nausea and disbelief.”
Although I’ve always loved reading fiction and dreamed as a young man of writing a novel that could move people in the way my favorite authors moved me, I never had the self-confidence to even begin putting in the time and effort necessary for such an undertaking. It seemed easier to try to accomplish something practical in the tangible world, so I ended up going to medical school and becoming a physician, beginning my internship in 1981, just days after the US Center for Disease Control reported a mysterious, fatal form of immunodeficiency in five gay men. A few months later, I was assigned responsibility for the first patient diagnosed with this disease in my hospital, a man critically ill with pneumonia, on a ventilator because of respiratory failure and requiring dialysis for kidney failure. I spent many hours every day for the next month doing my best to keep him alive until he died a month later. That experience, along with many subsequent ones, led to my commitment to scientific discovery and alleviation of the suffering caused by this disease.
Fast forward thirty years later. I was still working full-time as an HIV/AIDS specialist at San Francisco General Hospital, feeling ready to wind down the research part of my career. I began to think about what else I wanted to do next. The thought occurred to me that no one had really explored in fiction what it was like to be a front-line physician at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, caring for so many young people with a fatal illness that we barely understood at that time. Suddenly, I discovered I could feel the freedom I needed to write a story about these doctors if I simply imagined personal histories and emotional logic for each character that had absolutely no basis in the lives or behavior of any of my colleagues during that time. The details of my own experiences and challenges were fair game and could be distributed to the protagonists of such a novel—for example having a patient plead to give him the means to end his life, or a close colleague dying of AIDS, or accidentally sticking myself with a needle contaminated with blood from an HIV-infected patient, or facing the fury and impossible, yet righteous, demands of AIDS activists. I was off and running with the idea.
About the author
Mark Jacobson, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and attending physician at San Francisco General Hospital, began his internship in 1981, just days after the CDC first reported a mysterious, fatal disease affecting gay men.
About Sensing Light
March 1979, a young street hustler in San Francisco stumbles into an emergency room with lungs so congested he can barely breathe. Seen by a perplexed young medical resident, the patient becomes the first of many thousands to die from a yet-to- be named plague. Sensing Light is raw, compelling novel that reveals the personal and professional lives of men and women on the front lines of the emerging AIDS epidemic.
This breakout book by Mark Jacobson, a leading Bay Area HIV/AIDS physician, follows three people from vastly different backgrounds who are thrown together by a shared urgency to discover what is killing so many men in the prime of their lives. Kevin is a gay medical resident from working class Boston who has just moved to San Francisco in search of acceptance of his sexual identity. Herb, a middle-aged supervising physician at one of the nation’s toughest hospitals, is struggling with his own emotional rigidity. And Gwen, a divorced mother raising a teenage daughter, is seeking a sense of self and security while endeavoring to complete her medical training.
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