This Positive Life: Life After Being Cured of HIV
September 5, 2012
Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Timothy Brown, known to the world as the "Berlin Patient" or the first man cured of HIV. Timothy was diagnosed in 1995 at age 29 while studying and living abroad in Berlin. Yet the worst had yet to come. In 2006, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Enter Dr. Gero Hütter, who introduced the novel idea of transplanting stem cells from an HIV-resistant donor and the rest is history. Today, Timothy is HIV negative and continues to protect himself from becoming reinfected. He is an active HIV advocate and has even established the Timothy Ray Brown Foundation, the first and only organization with the sole mission of finding an HIV cure.
Olivia Ford: Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive, originally, and where you were at in your life at the time?
I thought living in Europe would be good. So I decided to move to Barcelona and started looking for jobs as an English teacher, and found one at a summer camp. That was fun. It was pine nut season, and we had to teach outside, with blackboards and picnic tables. The kids would pound on pinecones to get out the pine nuts. That was very distracting, so it was practically impossible to actually teach.
Then I made a lot of money there and I was supposed to meet friends in Prague. But I wanted to stop in Berlin, first of all. So I went up to Berlin. This is back in the days without cell phones, except those huge ones. But I didn't have one because they were very expensive.
My friends were supposed to call me, but never got a hold of me. So I ended up staying in Berlin for a month. I met somebody, and he came down to Barcelona to visit me. Then, through a series of incidences, we ended up moving into this place in Berlin. So that's how I started living in Berlin the first time.
At that time, I worked for the British military, at first as an assistant chef (only chopping vegetables and things like that, nothing big), and then, eventually, as a waiter at a hotel for British military people and their families. I did that for a while. Then I met somebody else, and we ended up moving.
I decided to go back to Berlin and try to get into university there because universities are basically free in Germany and they love foreigners, which kind of may sound strange considering the history.
I went back there and started working on learning more German, took intermediate German courses, and passed those. Then I was told that I had to do this course of studies, which were math, history, macro- and microeconomics. There were all sorts of things in German because the students were from all over the world. I did that and that allowed me to get into university. I applied in Berlin, and also Potsdam, which is right next to Berlin. I got into what's called Freie Universität, which means "Free University," in Berlin, and started studying there.
While I was finishing up the course of studies -- that was in 1995 -- I tested positive for HIV.
Olivia Ford: This is while you were studying in Berlin, doing this course of study.
Timothy Brown: Yeah.
Olivia Ford: How did you come to be tested?
Timothy Brown: I had been tested in Seattle the last time, in 1990, before I left. Didn't get tested for a while. Then a friend of mine who I had had sexual intercourse with, told me that he tested positive. He thought that I should go get tested. So I did and my test was positive.
Olivia Ford: What year was this?
Timothy Brown: 1995.
Olivia Ford: How old were you at the time?
Timothy Brown: I was born in 1966, and that was --
Olivia Ford: Twenty-nine?
Timothy Brown: Yeah, 29.
Olivia Ford: What did you think? And how did you feel when you first heard that you were HIV positive?
Timothy Brown: It was horrible because at that time it was basically a death sentence. And my doctor wanted me to start treatment immediately, because my CD4 cells were down pretty low.
The whole time I was in Germany I had access to health care. When I did start taking HIV medication, at first, it was Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) alone. I was very afraid of AZT because I knew that people had died from the medication itself, apart from dying because of the disease. And I didn't want to take it.
She convinced me to take low doses of AZT. So I took that for a while. Then luckily a miracle happened in 1996 and the protease inhibitors came onto the market. So I was able to take those. Several medications came on the market shortly thereafter, and I was able to take those. I did very well on the medication for years, for 11 years. I actually did take a drug holiday for about two years. I had thought of suggesting that to my doctor, and he actually suggested it to me on the day that I wanted to suggest to him that I do it. And he said for about six months, which turned into about two years, before I needed to take the medication again.
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