(BlackDoctor.org) — Gloria Reuben first started grappling with HIV issues as part of her role on ER, as physician assistant Jeanie Boulet, one of the first openly HIV-positive characters on prime-time TV. But soon, the scripts began to take over her off-duty thoughts. “It follows you around wherever you go,” says Reuben, who was on the ER set until 1999.
“You know, I think it’s more vital that we talk about what’s going on now,” the actress Gloria Reuben says with slightly impatient amusement. But in recalling the part she played of physician assistant Jeanie Boulet — as she says, “the first and only regular role on a network television show that was HIV positive” — she remains astounded. Reuben started playing Boulet in 1995 on the award-winning NBC television series ER, and yet more than 15 years later, no other recurring HIV-positive role has shown up on American TV.
An Opportunity to Broaden the Conversation
Boulet’s old stethoscope wasn’t exactly Reuben’s albatross. When ER’s script called for Reuben’s character to contract HIV, the twist was timely, poignant and unprecedented.
“We knew it was an opportunity to help broaden some perspectives and get people talking about HIV/AIDS,” says Reuben, who recalls painstaking production efforts to reproduce the mood and science of the time.
The effort paid off. Jeanie Boulet’s dilemma — that of a health-care professional grappling with her own health crisis — easily hooked viewers.
“I think everybody, to six degrees at the very least, had had an experience with somebody who was HIV positive,” Reuben says, including herself. “Within the first few months of that first year, where Jeanie found out that she is HIV positive, then certainly the learning curve expanded.”
Indeed, Reuben may have been privileged to access certain groundbreaking treatment information ahead of the general public. “We knew this combination drug therapy was in the works,” she recalls, referring to the therapy of multiple protease inhibitors called HAART, or the HIV “cocktail,” that became available in July 1996.
AIDS Story Lines Still Needed
“The thing I found most encouraging about doing that role was that it got people talking about the issue,” Reuben says. It also thrust cast members and numerous HIV/AIDS organizations onto one another’s radar. “I decided to utilize the platform of the story line to help some organizations,” says Reuben, whose activism on behalf of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has taken her to South Africa. (She is also strongly involved with world environmental and climate-change issues.)