Sundance ’18: Quiet Heroes

Dr. Kristen Ries arrived in Utah in 1982, just as the first cases were surfacing of an uncontained, unidentified, deadly illness. An infectious disease specialist, and self-proclaimed “lover of detective stories,” Dr. Ries was immediately compelled to help. Over the subsequent years of 1986 – 1996, HIV/AIDS would grow into an epidemic, and the number one killer of people aged 35-45, compounded by stigma and shame, its’ victims treated as the lepers of a generation. In the entire state of Utah and the intermountain region, Dr. Ries was the only doctor who would care for them.

Quiet Heroes, directed by Jenny Mackenzie and premiering at Sundance this year, is the story of Dr. Ries and her small team of women who risked everything to help a group of people in desperate need. The Utah Film Commission on Main was honored to host Dr. Ries and her partner in life and crime, Maggie Snyder, along with medical colleagues Dr. Adam Spivak, Dr. Suzanna Keeshan, and moderator Dr. Caroline Melly, along with the producers and co-directors of the film Amanda Stoddard and Jared Ruga, for a discussion about the film, and the past and present of treating HIV/AIDS patients.

The disease, initially misunderstood as linked with homosexuality, escalated rapidly in Salt Lake City. The fear of contracting AIDS – at the time a savage and inevitable death sentence – was eclipsed for Mormons by the fear of being outed as homosexual in a context where the Church condemned homosexuality to the point of mothers disowning their children, and AIDS as God’s vengeance on sinners. Most medical practices did not treat HIV/AIDS patients in the beginning of the outbreak, and it was considered untouchable by the Department of State. The victims were left with no one, no resources, and no medical allies – except Kristen Ries. In the film, United States Senator Jim Dabakis remembers her early practice, ““It was an island in a sea of fear and disdain bordering on hatred; there was this little island of Dr. Ries and the people who helped [her].”

Dr. Ries had overcome a tongue-in-cheek childhood fear of Catholics and found kindred souls and professional partnership with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She recruited Maggie Snyder as a nurse practitioner, who would eventually become her life partner, and together with the nuns, they build a clinic that welcomed “the aids and the aged,” as Dr. Ries recalls, those that no one else would touch. It was essentially hospice care in the early days; they reverted to “the historical roots of medicine” – connecting with touch, listening, and preparing for death, intimacies so powerful for their patients that the survivors featured in the film tear up remembering a simple hug from the doctor. At the panel, Snyder explained, “Deeper into the training you lose your humanity… I don’t know how we can teach that… I try to tell my students, this is not a person with a disease, it’s your grandma; you have to treat them as such.”

Hugs weren’t the only risk they took. The cost of AZT treatment was prohibitive for many of their patients. The disease often took lives so quickly, families of those who had access to the medicine would surreptitiously donate remaining pills to Ries and Snyder, who would then covertly pass them along to the next patient who needed them. Technically it was illegal underground drug trafficking, and as Snyder says, “I was prepared to go to jail for this.” Eventually a triple pill cocktail came out, a medical innovation which removed the death sentence from an HIV diagnosis, and which Ries described as “Lazarus syndrome – they came back from the dead.” Suddenly instead of helping their patients prepare for death, they were helping them prepare for renewed life.

Snyder recalls, “We never thought we would be part of Utah’s history, we merely saw a need and tried to help.” However, their legacy is entrenched in the legacy of the AIDS epidemic – one that killed tens of thousands, but concurrently transformed activism and paved the way for the gay rights movement. As Dabakis says in the film, “It was the AIDS crisis that changed everything. We saw our friends dying and we decided we are not going to take this sitting down. We are not going to allow our friends to die without medication and without medical help, and without support, and without love… that was the foundation of everything that followed.”

Mackenzie’s portfolio of films reflect a commitment to social relevance and creating real-world impact, and the Sundance premiere of Quiet Heroes has brought a spotlight to the imperative work still being done on the ground to eradicate this disease. Panelist Dr. Spivak, who in addition to researching the cure, also teaches the history of HIV to his medical students. Dr. Keeshin spoke about PrEP, a pharmaceutical game-changer in terms of preventing transmission of HIV, and the activism around it. All of the practicing doctors that were on the panel are volunteers at a free HIV-prevention clinic currently in development at the U, the second of its kind in the country. All cited Dr. Kristin Ries and Maggie Snyder as direct inspiration, and, as Dr. Spivak said, are “very proud to be picking up the baton.”

Contributing writer, Diana Whitten, writes, makes art, and directs film.