Before watching the documentary Killing Patient Zero, I knew very little about Gaetan Dugas. It turns out he was a loving son, brother, and friend. He enjoyed his job as a flight attendant for Air Canada. He was also openly gay and completely unashamed of his life. The one thing I thought I knew about Gaetan was completely wrong: he was not the man who inflicted AIDS upon the world.
At the beginning of the epidemic, doctors were desperate to figure out how this “gay cancer” was being spread. They theorized that sex was the cause and began to interview a sampling of gay men about their sexual history. Gaetan was one of these patients who generously cooperated with the CDC. Doctors produced a cluster study that featured him, amongst others, showing how the disease had traveled through sexual partners. Later, Gaetan was mistakenly labeled as “patient zero”, as if AIDS had originated with him. Reporter Randy Shilts latched onto this false story when he was doing research for his novel And the Band Played On. He took it a step further by writing that Gaetan had knowingly passed on the disease to the men he slept with. Once Shilts’ book was published, Gaetan, who had died by then, was put in the spotlight and his reputation was savaged.
Director/writer Laurie Lynd attempts to repair this damage in her documentary. Through interviews with healthcare professionals who were on the frontlines, he dispels the myth of a patient zero. They confirm that Gaetan was not the originator of AIDS. His friends talk about the warm caring man they knew. Someone who would not have purposely spread a disease. There’s even archival footage from a town hall meeting about AIDS featuring an outspoken Gaetan. The short video offers a much more accurate portrayal of him than Shilts’ book ever could.
I finished Zero feeling informed about the subject and also angry on his behalf. It’s horrible how this man was vilified by the public. I hope that more people will see the film and get an understanding of Gaetan’s true character. He and his loved ones deserve that vindication.