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Meet Ruth Coker Burks, the woman who cared for hundreds of gay men dying of AIDS when no one else would

Coker Burks' life as an accidental activist began one fateful day in 1986 while visiting a friend at a local hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Meet Ruth Coker Burks, the woman who cared for hundreds of gay men dying of AIDS when no one else would
Cover Image Source: Ruth Coker Burks attends the 2019 Attitude Awards at The Roundhouse on October 09, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Joe Maher/Getty Images)

Ruth Coker Burks just wanted to do the right thing. "Oh, I'm no angel," the 62-year-old told TODAY. "I'm just a person." Coker Burks' legacy, however, tells a different tale. Her life as an accidental activist began one fateful day in 1986 while visiting a friend, Bonnie, at a local hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bonnie had her tongue removed due to oral cancer and Coker Burks, who was just 26-years-old at the time, was acting as her interpreter. While at the hospital, she noticed something unusual out of the corner of her eye. A group of nurses was gathered outside a door down the hall with a bright red tarp across it, unwilling to go in.


"I had been in hospitals a lot of times and so I thought that was really bizarre," Coker Burks said of the biohazard red door. "The nurses were literally drawing straws to see who would go in and check on this person. They would draw straws and it'd be best out of three, and then they didn't like that and so then it'd be best 2 out of 3, and then no one would end up going in to check in on this person. They just walked away."


Perplexed by the nurses' unusual behavior, Coker Burks snuck into the room when the nurses left their stations. She wanted to see who was there and was surprised when she couldn't spot anyone at first. "I had to look for him," she explained. "I thought maybe he was in the bathroom. You couldn't tell the difference between him and the bedsheets. It was just horrible. I went over to the bed and I didn't know what to do but I took his hand and I said, 'Honey, what can I do for you?'"


"He looked up at me and he didn't have any more tears to cry. He was so dehydrated there was nothing left to produce any tears. But he looked up at me and he said he wanted his mama," she recalled. It was the first time she had encountered a person dying from AIDS. Although Coker Burk initially thought she might be able to fulfill his wish, she soon realized that his mother knew where he was and had no intentions to visit him. "I went over to speak with the nurses, and they backed up like I had them at gunpoint," she said. "They said, 'You didn't go in that room, did you?' Well yeah, I noticed that y’all weren't going in. So they started fussing at me and then they just backed up even more."


She still remembers what they said to her about the man in the room. "His mother's not coming. Nobody's coming. He's been in this hospital for six weeks, nobody's been here and nobody's coming, and don't you go back in that room." Despite their warnings, Coker Burk was determined to help the man, whose name she learned was Jimmy. Although she tried calling Jimmy's mother numerous times, his mother refused to take the call each time and only obliged after a heated threat to put his obituary in her local newspaper. "My son died years ago when he went gay," she told Coker Burks. "I don't know what thing you have at that hospital but that's not my son."


Coker Burks knew then that the best thing she could do for Jimmy at that stage was to stay by his side. And so she did until he died the next day. "I thought he would be the only one, and I would get back to going to church every Sunday and you know, being a good Christian living the best life I could," she said. "I had a young daughter, her father and I were divorced, and I was just trying to be the best mother and set the best example I could for her. I thought I’d just go back to that." However, she soon learned that Jimmy's story wasn't a one-off. Countless gay men with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s were shunned by their families, abandoned, and left to die alone.


Nurses started giving out Coker Burks' number to their patients who were affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Over the years, she went on to bury 39 of them in her family's cemetery alongside Jimmy's ashes and cared for hundreds more. Last year, she published her story in the book, "All the Young Men." Above all else, she said, she wants people to understand that her story is one of hope. "It's about friendships, and it's about having the very worst of situations and turning it into something else," she explained. "It's about kindness and stepping through the door, whatever the door is. It's a fear that you override. Whatever fear you have and you just walk into that room, because everybody always asked me what made me walk into that room. To me, it was a voice of God saying, 'Go in there. It's going to be OK.'"


"I learned more about living from the dying than I ever learned about dying with the dying," Coker Burks continued. "Hope was all they had. That was it. And, you know, we would go to drag shows. ... I had never even heard of a drag queen but I would stand by the stage with my dollars, I wouldn't even go back to my chair, I was just handing out dollars all night, thinking to myself these are the most fabulous creatures I've ever met in my life. Step out of your lives, step out of your boundaries and deliberately meet new people who aren’t you."

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