How Nellie Oleson Became an AIDS Activist

BY Alison Arngrim

June 16 2010 8:50 AM ET

NELLIE OLSEN MAIN X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COM

She explained that she had, in fact, during her cancer, done everything the doctors asked her to do, even surgery. It was only when these attempts began to fail that she knew she needed something more. Meditation and beliefs by themselves were not sufficient, she warned. One must also take care of one’s body in a concrete fashion. She explained that the instructions she was giving in her meetings were not just intended for the hour, but were meant to be used all the time — in their diets, their medical treatment, their living conditions. Getting happily blissed out for an hour a week was not going to produce a miracle. Fighting diseases like AIDS and cancer was just plain old-fashioned hard work. In other words, the sweet, beautiful, sainted healer stood there and read us the riot act.

I turned to Steve and said, “She’s fabulous! Why didn’t you tell me she was like this?” He replied, “Well, I did say you’d be surprised, didn’t I?” We gave her a standing ovation.

For the record, Louise Hay is still alive and well, and so are some of the people who went to her workshops. Just not Steve.

No matter how bad the disease got, Steve insisted on being self-sufficient. Even though his mother and sister flew in to be by his side (a rare occurrence back in the 1980s, when parents routinely abandoned their sick and dying children out of fear or prejudice), he would only let them do so much. I asked him what I could do. He explained the “volunteer schedule” he had worked out: “Well, I’ve got a guy from the AIDS Project Los Angeles Buddy Program coming over. He helps me with a whole bunch of stuff and even takes me to the doctor. The maid’s still coming to clean, and what with APLA and Project Angel Food, I’ve got no problem getting food delivered. Oh, then there’s this poor guy they sent over from Shanti, but he’s a complete idiot. So I make him do my laundry.”

What was left for me? Steve thought about it for a few minutes, then decreed I would be “the goodtime girl.” I would hang out with him; we’d go to dinner and the movies. My job was to continue to help him enjoy life. I liked my assignment.







Through it all, Steve never lost his sense of humor. He even taught me a few AIDS jokes, including this one:

So this woman goes to a nutritionist and says, “Can you help me? My son has leprosy, bubonic plague, and AIDS. Is there any diet that will help?’”

“Leprosy, bubonic plague, and AIDS?” says the nutritionist. “Let me see ... Okay, we’re going to start him on a diet of pizza and pancakes.”

“Pizza and pancakes?” asks the mother. “How interesting! Will that help?”

“I don’t know,” says the nutritionist, “but it’s the only thing we can slide under the door.”

Though it was meant to be funny — and it was — this joke accurately captured where people’s heads were at when it came to AIDS. Fear and misinformation were rampant, and AIDS patients were looked upon as lepers. I couldn’t believe the stuff people were asking me — about toilet seats, mosquitoes, all sorts of silliness. And they were people who should know better: not just other actors, but everyone from my best friend’s aunt in Boston, to tabloid reporters, to reporters from so-called legitimate newspapers, even friends. For some reason, I was suddenly a noted authority on the subject. But why me? Who cared what I had to say about it? I was an actress, not an epidemiologist, for Christ’s sake. And then I remembered the scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, Network. TV news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, has cracked up and thinks he’s hearing the voice of God when Ned Beatty’s character tells him why he wants him to carry his message. He says, “Why me, Lord?” And the answer is: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

So, I thought, all right, if everyone’s going to insist on getting their medical news from somebody on TV — namely, me — what if I did something totally crazy, like providing correct, possibly life-saving information? So I went to AIDS Project Los Angeles and signed up for hotline training, which consisted of weeks of classes with homework and a five-page final exam. I had hated school, but now I was finally studying for a reason.



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