The Cemetery Angel

Below are the notes/script of Season 2 Episode 14 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.

  • Recommendation Segment
    • Red Rising
      • My Fiancee and I got in to a sci-fi book series about a miner on Mars. In this future, mankind has colonized the solar system. This future society has a pyramid structure where the ones at the top get to reap all the wealth and those at the bottom are given a life of struggle and sacrifice. The Martian Miner named Darrow is given the chance to escape his life of suffering and subjugation. What follows is one of the best paced action sci-fi stories I have ever heard.
      • I’m currently on book 5 titled Dark Age. The author Pierce Brown is currently working on book 6.
This cover art for Dark Age is by the artist Sam Burley

Just a heads up, this week’s episode was emotionally difficult for me. It may also be a bit emotional for you. That is why I kept it short.

  • A Hospital in Arkansas
    • Little Rock Arkansas 1984, a man who calls himself Jimmy is laying frail and weak in a hospital bed. No one has come to visit Jimmy since he has been admitted and because of fear, no hospital staff will enter his room unless absolutely necessary. Jimmy has been diagnosed with what was then called GRID (Gay-related immune disease). This disease was later called HIV/AIDS. At the time in 1984 little was known about HIV.
    • As Jimmy lays on his death bed suffering alone and calling out for his mother, a stranger hears him. The stranger is at the Little Rock Hospital to visit a friend. Her name is Ruth Coker Burks. She notices that despite his cries, the nurses and other hospital staff are avoiding Jimmy’s room.
    • For reasons unknown to even herself, Ruth decides to console Jimmy. He only weighs around 100 pounds. Ruth notices he is so pale it is difficult to discern his body from the hospital bed sheets. Jimmy tells Ruth he wants to see his mom and Ruth goes to the nearest Nurse’s station to relay the message, and even call Jimmy’s mother herself.
    • The nurses laugh at Ruth and tell her that no one has come to see Jimmy and that no one will. When Ruth contacts Jimmy’s mother she refuses to see him.
    • Ruth returns to Jimmy’s bedside at which point the young man said “Oh mama, I knew you’d come.” Of course Ruth doesn’t correct Jimmy. Instead she accepts Jimmy’s palliative care, staying by his side for 13 hours until he dies.
    • Ruth contacts Jimmy’s mother to tell her that her son has passed away. She is horrified to learn that his mom won’t even claim Jimmy’s body.
    • After being rejected numerous times, Ruth is able to find a funeral home that will accept Jimmy. However, they won’t touch his body and will only cremate him.
    • Ruth pays for the cremation and places Jimmy’s ashes in a cookie jar and places the jar in her family cemetery.
    • Burks began to receive regular phone calls, initially from hospitals and later from AIDS patients themselves, ultimately contributing to the care of over 1000 people over three decades.
    • With assistance from her daughter, Burks buried more than 40 AIDS victims in her family cemetery.
    • While her patients were still alive, Burks helped take them to appointments, obtain medications, apply for assistance, and arrange their funerals. She also kept supplies of AIDS medications such as zidovudine in her pantry, due to many local pharmacies not providing it.
I was scrolling through Reddit the other day when I saw this meme. Something told me to look in to this woman’s story. Since then I have been brought to tears reading about her compassion.
  • What Society Saw
    • Due to her work with AIDS, Burks and her daughter were shunned by their local community, and on two occasions crosses were burned in her yard by the Ku Klux Klan
    • Burks received financial assistance from gay bars in Arkansas, including the Discovery Club in Little Rock: “They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night and here’d come the money. […] That’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent. If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.
    • In 1988, Norman Jones, owner of the Discovery Club, created Helping People with AIDS, where Burks worked for several years.
    • After the passing of the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990, which made care for people with HIV and AIDS more readily available, Burks struggled to find employment in the field due to her lack of professional qualifications, although during Bill Clinton’s presidency, she did serve as a White House consultant for AIDS education.
    • Burks’ patients lived around two years beyond the national average life expectancy for men diagnosed with AIDS at that time, catching the interest of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, which sent researchers to investigate.
  • During the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, she used her salary as a real estate agent to care for AIDS patients whose families and communities had abandoned them. Due to the stigma surrounding the disease at the time, she was often the patients’ only caregiver until they eventually died. She is additionally recognized for burying more than forty AIDS victims in her family cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
  • I typically like to have episodes that are interesting, educational, exciting, humorous, and even scary.
    • I don’t think I’ve ever done such a serious episode, but when I read about Ruth’s story on Reddit, I felt like I had to do an episode on her.
    • While reading about her I got emotional multiple times. Yes it is tragic to learn about so many lives lost (as of 2019 about 32.7 million people died from AIDs-related illness since the beginning of the epidemic), but what got to me was the seemingly endless amount of compassion shown by Ruth.
    • I can quite pessimistic when it comes to people, so when I learn of a story of compassion where I can’t conceive of any ulterior motive it chokes me up.
    • When asked what compelled Ruth to go in to Jimmy’s room back in 1984 she replied “I don’t know what made me do it. I’m pretty sure God asked me to do it.”
    • I like to think, whether you believe in a higher power or not, what made Ruth go in to that room was pure empathy. It was an instinctual drive to comfort someone who was in need. Ruth didn’t have the power to save Jimmy’s life or even take away his pain, but she did have the power to make him feel less alone in this world.


If you want to learn more about HIV/AIDS you can visit

One reply on “The Cemetery Angel”

This was such a time in my professional career. I had just completed nurse’s training in 1984…fear drove many to act inhumanely.Glad to now see this treatable disease be better understood and managed.XOSent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S9.

Liked by 1 person

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