Magic, HIV and Me: A Retrospective! Part Two
By Rae Lewis-Thornton
November 11, 2011
Ron stood frozen as I rambled on. He was a gentle man with a big heart and a solid commitment to what was right and fair in the world. That was one of the reasons I had chosen to tell him my HIV status. I knew in my heart that there would be no judgment. Part One Click Here
But I started to get nervous as he stood there with this poker face that I could not read, so I decided to quit while I was ahead. I finally said, "Can you help me?" and took a deep breath and waited. Ron said to me, "I'm so sorry Rae, but we will take care of you." I exhaled. I didn't know what that meant but the compassion in his eyes said that it would be ok. He said, "I want you to call Mardge Cohen, she's Gordy Schiff's wife. You know Gordy, just get there number off the list." I did know Gordy, he was a member of the board Physician For A National Health Program and another good man with a commitment to what was right and fought for it.
I needed to get my courage up again so I took a moment before I made that call. I remember it like yesterday. The fear of having to say that I had HIV yet again was overwhelming. I couldn't image how Magic had stood on national television and disclosed his HIV status. "He must be crazy," I thought, I started to sweat under my clothes as the phone rang. "Hello, Hello," I could hear the voice on the other end, "Hello may I speak to Mardge Cohen," I said. "This is she." "Hi, my name is Rae Lewis and I'm the Field Director of PNHP and Ron Sable said I should call." She said, "Un huh." I continued, "I have HIV and the doctors at NIH said I should get on new medications."
She wasted no time and interrupted me before I went any further. "Come see me on Wednesday at the Women and Children HIV Clinic at County, OK?, "OK," I said. "I'll see you Wednesday," and before I knew it she was gone.
So here Magic was telling the world he had HIV and I was hoarding my infection like it was my last dime. Just the thought of having to tell one more person was too much for me. And going to an AIDS clinic scared the hell out of me. I was afraid that someone may recognize me and then my secret would really be out. But what I failed to realize was that every single woman in the clinic was also infected. But that didn't matter to me in those early days.
I went to the clinic on my lunch hour that day and after I registered I stood in the corner so no one would talk to me. My infection was none of your business. I couldn't image why Magic told the world. "That's his shit," I said to myself, "I will not become the talk of anyone's town or beauty shop."
That day Mardge told me that I had AIDS. She is always so matter of fact. "You have AIDS, and you need to start treatment." And then she said to me, "You are depressed and I'm gonna get you on an antidepressant." I looked at this woman like she had lost her mind. The balls that she had for such a little woman. She was so freaking bossy and matter of fact. Who the hell does she think she is all I thought, as she talked to me.
I left that clinic and sat in the pharmacy for five hours to get my medication filled. I was in such shock the wait didn't even matter. Plus, this was free medication, beggars can't complain about a darn thing. That day I went from 3 pills a day to 23 pills a day. Not only was I given new HIV medication, but medication to prevent me from getting opportunist infections.
After I got my medication, I went home and went to bed and I stayed there until Monday morning. Yes, I didn't go to work the rest of that week. I didn't answer my telephone and I didn't leave the house.
I have AIDS ... was all I could think about. I thought I was never going to get AIDS. I wondered what was Magic's T-cell count? Did he have AIDS to or was he just HIV infected? That day I was forced to live in a new reality.
Having HIV is one thing, but having AIDS was another ball game. Once you have HIV you always have HIV because it never leaves the body, but AIDS was the death sentence back then. The life expectancy was three years for a person living with AIDS. So a part of me wanted to know if Magic was dying, just like me. I wondered if Magic had a magic pill because he was rich that I couldn't get because I was just a serious working woman.
So for me, Magic's HIV status started to have more questions than marvel. I wasn't impressed with everyone's new understanding that HIV was a non-discriminatory disease. Shit, I had been living proof of that now for 8 years. I wanted to know what would keep me alive. I wanted to know if his infection was in anyway different from my infection. If his medications were different from mine and if I could possibly get my hands on what he had.
But all that I wanted to know became a well-kept secret and honestly I resented him for that. How dare he become so public with his HIV status yet remain so private. I felt betrayed. While he had brought attention to HIV and the need for prevention on one hand, on the other hand, as a person living with HIV, he left so many unanswered questions.
In time, his need and right to privacy would also raise not only doubt and confusion for me but also a lot people. I'm just being honest. As I rose to fame as an AIDS Activist two years later, I would have to answer the hard questions that people had about Magic's HIV status in my speaking engagements. I jokingly say, he should pay me for cleaning up his mess.
It went something like this ...
To be continued. Part three next week.
Post Script: Mardge Cohn is the founder of the Women and Children HIV Clinic at Cook County Hospital. She remained my doctor for 19 years until she and Gordy retired from County and moved out of state.
Ron Sable was one of the founders of the AIDS Clinic and AIDS Ward at County Hospital and the first openly gay person to run for Alderman in the City of Chicago. What I didn't know that day, was Ron was also living with AIDS. He died a couple years later. His work and commitment to social justice will never be forgotten.
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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks
Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.
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