'God willing, we will meet again in Spaceballs 2!'

T.K. was my first patient with AIDS. Not that this should define him by any means, but it was all he allowed me to know in the beginning. After receiving a limited report from the previous nurse, I walked into his room. I was still in my first year of nursing and was truly unprepared for what I saw.

As I fussed over some IV tubing, I looked at a human being who had been reduced to skin and bones, eyes that expressed emptiness and a sadness so profound that the room felt like it was sinking into an eternal nothingness. He resembled the stereotypical AIDS patient often depicted from the ’80s and ’90s.

T.K. had stopped taking his medications; at the time, I did not know why. He would not acknowledge me. He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t move. He just lay there. It was profoundly heart-wrenching to see someone who had lost the will to live.

My first shift with him was horrible. I couldn’t make him comfortable. The antibiotics gave him the worst diarrhea and every hour he needed to use the bedpan. I could literally lift him up with one arm; he was so fragile. The alkaline nature of his bowel movements would slowly burn his skin no matter how much protection was used.

Every shift, I would request to care for T.K. I put everything I 
was as a nurse into his care. 
I would pick up extra shifts just so he would have someone with him. Our small talk gradually became more in-depth. His one-word answers became full conversations.

Over the weeks, I learned he came from a very religious family. Religious trauma weighed heavily on T.K.’s shoulders to the point where his guilt over being gay overpowered his will to live. And then to be diagnosed with HIV was the last straw for his biological family. This led him to stop taking his medications.

His family shunned him. They abandoned him. I was beyond angry! How could a family who had a son not come to see him? To think that someone could give birth to a child, raise them, and then leave them on their deathbed, alone. It is a type of “Christ’s love” I will never understand nor give grace to.

I learned he loved having movie nights with friends. We talked about our favorite movies—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Harry Potter films, The Land Before Time, Indiana Jones, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hocus Pocus and various Disney movies. One morning, he made his first and only request: “Can we watch Spaceballs?”

FOR ANYONE NOT FORTUNATE to have seen it, Spaceballs is a 1987 American space opera parody directed by Mel Brooks. It satirizes Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Planet of the Apes. It’s a cult movie that has developed a large following that revels in inside jokes.

Through those jokes, we began to connect. T.K. had no idea what beast he just unleashed! I immediately went to work, preparing all the necessities for movie night. If religion was failing him, I promised myself that the Schwartz would not!

OVER THE NEXT few days his eyes became more alive with anticipation of movie night. He thanked me and everyone who cared for him. I simply answered, “Please, please, don’t make a fuss. I’m just plain Yogurt.”

He smiled and said, “Well, then, ‘may the Schwartz be with you.’ ”

One morning, I said, “Let’s get that hair washed,” and without missing a beat, we both exclaimed with another line from the movie, “Someone shot my hair! Son of a bitch!”

For the first time, I heard 
T.K. laugh.

The day had finally come! 
I rolled in the comfiest chair in the hospital I could find. Pulling out each item of movie night “merchandise,” I announced, “We have Spaceballs, the pillow! Spaceballs, the TV! Spaceballs, the pudding! Spaceballs, the socks!” Holding up an improvised contraption, I yelled, “Spaceballs, the flame thrower!

And as I pulled out a blanket, he wittily added, “They’ve gone plaid.”

As we watched the movie, 
we finished quotes said by various characters:

Dark Helmet: “Comb the desert!”

Radar Technician: “I lost the bleeps, I’ve lost the sweeps and I’ve lost the creeps.”

Dot Matrix: “It's either the Fourth of July, or someone's trying to kill us!”

Dark Helmet: “I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.”

Lone Starr: “What’s that make us?” To which Dark Helmet answers, “Absolutely nothing! Which is what you are about 
to become.”

One morning, he made his first and only request: 'Can we watch Spaceballs?'

As the movie ended, I helped T.K. to bed. It had been a long and exciting day for both of us. 
I placed the call light in his hand and picked up the remote off the bed. I was about to leave his room when T.K. let a mischievous smile run across his face. “What?” I asked.

“Looks like your Schwartz is as big as mine,” T.K. proclaimed. 

“Now let’s see how well you handle it,” I rebutted. And we engaged in a Schwartz Ring fight.

I DIDN'T KNOW that that would be the last night he and I would share. The next morning, I learned that T.K. had transitioned in his sleep.

After my own personal dark chapter, I went to a spiritual medium for shits and giggles. 
By this time, I was an ICU nurse. I can’t explain how, but I knew T.K. had found peace when he reached back to me through the medium. She said, “We’ll meet again in Spaceballs 2!”

Christopher Hetzer, MSN, RN, ACRN, (he, him) started his nursing career in
trauma and neuroscience intensive care. After his own experience with polysubstance use and HIV, he has found a new passion for bringing sexual health advocacy to the forefront of conversation for all ages. He works closely with the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care (ANAC). Follow him on Facebook and Instagram (@christopherhetzer) and on TikTok (@freakbetweenthesheets).