Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in her 20s when the AIDS epidemic hit Arkansas in the early 1980s. She took it upon herself to care for AIDS patients who were abandoned by their families, and even by medical professionals, who feared the disease. Coker Burks, now 55, has no medical training, but she estimates that she has cared for nearly 1,000 people over the past three decades. She became involved after visiting a friend at a Little Rock hospital where one of the state’s early AIDS patients was dying. “The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on him,” says Coker Burks. “And so I snuck into his room. And he wanted his mama. And so I marched myself out to the nurses’ station and I said, ‘Can we call his mother?’ And they go, ‘Honey, his mama’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’
“And so I went back in and he looked up at me and he said, ‘Oh, Mama, I knew you’d come.’ I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath. I called his mother and I told her that he had died and she said, ‘I’m not burying him.’ So I had him cremated and I brought him home… I’ve buried over 40 people in my family’s cemetery, because their families didn’t want them.”
Ruth Coker Burks has been featured in regional and national publications and shows, including The Arkansas Times, StoryCorp, the BBC, and NPR’s Morning Edition. Originally from Hot Springs, Ruth now lives in Northwest Arkansas with her family.
Tonight’s program will take place at Best Impressions restaurant at the Arkansas Arts Center. Music will be provided by The Salty Dogs and bluesman Mark Simpson.
Dinner is served from 5pm to 6:30pm, the show starts at 7pm. Admission is $15. Dinner can be purchased separately.
You MUST purchase your ticket before the show. Any tickets still available at the door can be purchased for $20.
Previous episodes of “Tales from the South” air on KUAR Public Radio on Thursdays at 7pm. This program will air on April 16.