"WE ARE AT A POINT WHERE AIDS- specific services should fade away," says Raven Gildea, program coordinator for In Touch, a service agency that provides massage to people with AIDS. "That doesn't mean people with AIDS don't need massage. But the time has come to stop asking, 'What are the needs of a person with AIDS?' Instead we need to ask, 'We've got these agencies set up to provide these types of services. Who needs them?'"

Agencies providing massage to people with AIDS sprang up in major urban areas all over the country during the '80s. When In Touch was founded in 1984, many doctors and nurses were afraid to touch people with the disease, and an agency dedicated to providing massage to people with AIDS played important medical and symbolic roles, providing health benefits and fighting AIDS phobia.

"But AIDS services were set up with the idea that anyone who had AIDS was going to follow a fairly predictable health decline," Gildea says now. "You were going to need services for the rest of your life, which meant an average of two or three years." That isn't the case any longer, and Gildea's agency recently broke ties with the Northwest Aids Foundation in order to expand its clientele to include people with other diseases.

"With the advent of protease inhibitors," Gildea explains, "some people are doing poorly, some are doing great, and some are having ups and down, but we're not seeing the inevitable decline anymore." Before the new drugs came along, 200 In Touch clients might die in a year; only five died in all of 1998.

Those figures made Gildea and her coworker Rick Hieb wonder whether they were using limited resources wisely. With an annual budget of only $60,000 and relying on a network of volunteers, In Touch can provide only about 120 massages per month. "We would call clients to schedule a massage and they would say, 'Oh, I'm playing baseball that day,'" recalls Gildea. Meanwhile, she was turning down people with other diseases. "People would call and say, 'I have Lupus, can I get massage?' or 'I have leukemia, can I get massage?' I would have to tell them no."

In Touch was part of NWAF at the time, and Gildea advocated extending services to people with other life-threatening illnesses. "The response was 'Well, how interesting. Thank you for sharing. Next,'" Gildea says. Like Chicken Soup Brigade, NWAF is only slowly adjusting to the changing nature of the AIDS epidemic, and is not seizing the opportunity to re-invent itself or its programs. So, Gildea broke ties with the AIDS organization March 1st, and found a new home for her program, the non-AIDS-specific Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Gildea describes In Touch's leaving NWAF as a no-fault divorce. "They said they wanted us to leave, and I wanted to leave," she says. "It was clear that if I didn't find a new home for In Touch, they were going to close the program."

Gildea hopes to start providing massage to non-HIV/AIDS clients sometime in the next few months. "AIDS isn't over," she acknowledges. "It's still a problem, but it's not the only problem in the world. I lost a friend to AIDS a couple of months ago, so I know personally that people are still dying, but I know that we have the capacity to take care of more people now, and I think we should do it."

"You know, it's not people with AIDS who are having a hard time with this," she adds, noting that many of her clients have been very supportive of the change. "It's the people who run AIDS agencies."

Support The Stranger