December 1st of every year, which is World AIDS Day, I recognize a personal anniversary. You see, on World AIDS day 1994 I was diagnosed with HIV.
I was 30 years old at the time, living in California, and a widower. Just 4 months before that, my partner John had lost his fight with AIDS. He had progressed quickly—it was only about 2 years from the time he found out he had HIV until the time he died. The last time John went into the hospital, he had an infection that the doctors had a hard time diagnosing and treating. After a few days he decided that he was tired and wanted to die. So we arranged for hospice, set up a hospital bed in the living room, because it was the biggest room in our place, and he came home, and died a few weeks later with me and his family in the room.
About a month and a half after he passed, I got a call from a colleague at the CDC who offered me an opportunity to start a new life in Atlanta. I had never lived outside of Southern California, but I was ready to move on and start a new life. So I started packing things up and getting ready to make the move right after Christmas. I figured it would probably take a while for me to find a doctor in Atlanta, so I decided to have a physical before I left. It had been a little over a year since my last HIV test, so I decided to go ahead and get tested again.
When the phone rang that December 1st and I heard my doctor's voice I was in shock and didn't know what to do. Now, I'm a worrier by nature, and I started worrying about what might happen right away.
What would happen to me in Atlanta if I got sick?
Who would take care of me?
The sense of excitement that I had about moving across the country to begin a new life quickly changed to fear about what the future would hold and how long that future might be.
When my lab results came back, I found out that my CD4 or T cell count was 450, and I started taking AZT. With some hesitation, I decided to make the move to Atlanta and start my new HIV-positive life there.
That first year, I met my husband Rob who I am still with and very much in love with to this day.
And although I was incredibly happy with my life, I watched my CD4 count steadily decline. I took all the medications that were available at that time, AZT, DDC, DDI, D4T, but my CD4 count kept going lower and lower. And by the fall of 1995, I had a CD4 count of 201---just two CD4 cells away from being diagnosed with AIDS---and I was certain that I would only have one or two more years to live.
All of that changed when a friend of mine with AIDS gave me some of the medication he had received through an expanded access program. That medicine was Epivir or 3TC. Even though it wasn't working for my friend, when I started taking it, my CD4 count shot up over 700 in just a few weeks. The next year, the first protease inhibitors became available and I now have a CD4 count that ranges between 900 and 1000 and have had an undetectable viral load for more than a decade.
I choose to share my story because I wanted to remind you how important it is to keep fighting. Even when things look their darkest, you have to keep on fighting. You never know what the next day might hold. You have to hold on to that hope, because the only thing constant about life is change, and the next breakthrough or the next person who could change your life could be just around the corner.
I also wanted to tell you of how important we all are to each other and how much people living with HIV need your love and support. I wouldn't have moved to Atlanta if it hadn't been for the support I had back in California, and I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the help that my friend gave me in a time of need.
Most importantly though, I wanted to remind you of the impact that HIV has had, and continues to have today, on our lives here in this country. Even though it has been almost 30 years since the first cases of AIDS were recognized in this country, and even though we know prevention works, every 9 ½ minutes someone in this country becomes infected with HIV. That translates into more than 56,000 new HIV infections a year in the United States.
I remember the early days of the epidemic, and I worry that the lessons of the past are being lost on those who just want to forget them or are too young to have lived through those dark days. HIV and AIDS are not over! They are not just a problem for the rest of the world! When you have HIV, it's not just something that you can just forget. It changes your life and your relationships forever.
All of us who are living with HIV have a special responsibility to make sure that the spread of this virus stops here and now. It's a lot easier to prevent getting HIV in the first place than to deal with a lifetime of medications, doctors' visits, and medical bills. We not only have to stop HIV from being transmitted in our intimate relationships, but we also have to be living reminders that this country is still dealing with a deadly epidemic. We need to be role models and speak out, be seen, and be heard. We need to remind those who are naïve, uninformed, uncaring, or would just rather ignore the fact that HIV and AIDS are still a major problem right here in our own country. How many more 9½ minutes have to go by before you act against AIDS?