How Nellie Oleson Became an AIDS Activist

BY Alison Arngrim

June 16 2010 8:50 AM ET

NELLIE OLSEN BODY1 X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Steve didn’t cry — at least not in front of me. He was not just brave, he was noble. He let the doctors experiment on him, and he agreed to be part of a radical new study, which required him to jam needles filled with experimental drugs into his thigh. He told me that most people had quit this study because the treatments were so excruciatingly painful. But he said he didn’t mind the pain. The doctors might find a cure, and even if it was too late for him, he could be saving someone else’s life down the road. His courage and compassion floored me. If the tables were turned, I don’t know that I would have the strength, stamina, or stomach to do what he was doing.

And then the National Enquirer called — they had gotten wind of what was going on. Was it true about Steve Tracy having AIDS? How long did he have to live? How’d he get it? And the best one: Did I have it? After all, I had kissed him on TV. I was now in the “Linda Evans position”: When actor Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis was revealed, people thought Linda Evans — who was kissing him constantly on the soap opera Dynasty — was in danger. I couldn’t believe how ignorant most people were about AIDS. You couldn’t contract it from kissing; you couldn’t catch it if someone sneezed or coughed on you. It was blood borne through sex, needles, and transfusions.

Steve educated me day by day. Just as he had been my mentor and teacher in life, he was going to keep up the job while he was dying. At first, I was afraid to be around him if I had a cold. I thought his immune system was so fragile, he would pick up any germ — and that it could be fatal.

“Relax, will ya?” he said and laughed. “I’m not the Boy in the Plastic Bubble.”





I went with him to the doctors, to “healing workshops,” to candlelight vigils. We even checked out a Louise Hay workshop. Louise Hay was a cancer survivor who had written the book Heal Your Body about how positive thought patterns and meditation could affect one’s health. The AIDS community embraced her teachings. They were faced with a terrifying disease that the doctors barely understood and could offer no cure for. Happy thoughts had worked for Louise; she was cured. People with AIDS wanted to believe this course of treatment could cure them as well.

Louise Hay’s meetings were usually held in church basements or public recreation rooms in West Hollywood. They were insanely popular, and the attendees quickly dubbed them “Hay-Rides” for their cheery, upbeat atmosphere. I was highly skeptical of such things and feared they might only offer a big dose of bogus “faith healing” nonsense. Steve insisted I go with him. “I promise, you’ll be surprised,” he said.

The recreation room at Plummer Park in West Hollywood was packed. There was a giddy feeling in the room like before a revival tent meeting, so my skepticism continued. It didn’t help that many of the longtime attendees were desperately ill. I was surrounded by people in wheelchairs, people whose friends had carried them in on stretchers. Some were even walking around with Hickman ports, the permanently attached tubes that deliver medicine through a hole cut in the patient’s chest. What on earth did these people think Louise Hay could do for them?



When Louise walked onto the stage, the crowd went wild. She was a beautiful woman, with blond, almost white hair and porcelain skin. The meeting began with a lot of very churchlike meditation, repeating of affirmations, and whatnot — all stuff that confirmed my suspicion that this lady was really full of it.

And then she spoke. After a few opening remarks, her beatific smile disappeared, and she became serious. “I have to talk to you about something,” she said quite sternly. She explained that, to her great disappointment, people were claiming that she could magically “cure AIDS” and other diseases; that they no longer needed anything from their doctors; that they could throw away their meds and just read her book. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

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