This Positive Life: A Trailblazer Still Marches Forward
December 12, 2012
Gil Kudrin grew up with HIV. He was diagnosed in the early '80s at only 18 years old, and has outlived many of his peers. At 53 years old, he has marched with ACT UP, helped found Nightsweats & T-Cells (which employs HIV-positive people and gives them work skills and experience) and has raised two young, homeless boys as his own sons.
Believe it or not, he still takes the first HIV medication, Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) -- he experiences no side effects, has not developed resistance and sees no reason to stop. As he would say, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it." What Gil does think needs fixing: this country's public health response to HIV, and through a life that has seen loss, happiness and everything in between, he is still a fighter who is devoted to helping others who are affected by HIV.
My name is Gilbert Kudrin. I go by Gil. I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. I'm a 53-year-old, gay man. I have full-blown AIDS. I actually have been HIV positive since 1979. The second time I went to a gay bar, I met a guy who I fell in love with, who was about five or six years older than me. He has since passed away of AIDS. I didn't realize that when I thought he was off on business trips in New York City, he was actually at the bathhouses, or in the bars.
Very early on in our relationship, he got very ill and nobody could figure out what was wrong with him. He was in the hospital for about a month and a half, and he was in intensive care. They did an ileostomy on him, because they thought he had Crohn's disease. It turned out, he probably had CMV colitis. About a month or two after he got out of the hospital, I got very ill. My best friend was a doctor. I worked in a hospital for almost 20 years. He kept doing blood work on me and kept saying, "There's something really bizarre, wrong with you. And I can't figure it out. I've never seen anything like this."
In 1981, I can remember sitting in my apartment. By then I had broken up with this guy. I was watching the evening news, and I heard about what was then called GRID: gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome. I was like, "I'm going to die." I had already started experiencing really bad night sweats. I had swollen glands for several years. I was constantly getting staph infections, strep throat. Working in a hospital, I was exposed to a lot of pathogens that most people would not be exposed to. I worked in the maintenance department and was going to school at night to become an engineer. So that was how I figured out I had AIDS.
At that point, did you know anyone else who was sick? Did you feel like you were the only person besides these five or 10 men in Los Angeles?
Well, we started talking about it. We had a dialogue about it, because Cleveland at the time had one of the top 10 discos in the United States. It was a place called Tracks, and it was like the most fun. It was on par with Studio 54. For years, it was voted one of the top 10 discos in the United States. So we got people from New York coming to party, Montreal, Chicago. There was kind of this whole circuit. They would stay for the weekend, and then they would leave.
So what did you think? How did you feel when you first realized?
I did one of the healthy things you could do then: I participated in a lot of denial, because there wasn't anything else you could do. And I was like this super athlete. I was running 10 miles a day, five days a week. I'd get really sick, and then the infections would clear up and I'd go back to running.
But I was studying psychology, too. It was always something that was interesting to me. I had started as a psych major. I did a lot of visualization when I was running, stuff like that, that we knew about; and just visualized that I was destroying this disease in me while I was doing this running and stuff. I think that was important.
Who was the first person that you told? How did you first start talking about it?
I called a friend of mine. I was a volunteer at the Free Medical Clinic in Cleveland. We have two big, free medical clinics. The one I volunteered at was the one on the east side of Cleveland, on East 123rd and Euclid. It was set up by the same people who set up the Free Medical Clinic in Haight Ashbury. I worked the crisis intervention hotline and I was totally into the scene. Really cool people to work with, and I made friends with a lot of people in the system.
There was a free medical clinic on the west side of Cleveland. One of my friends, who happened to be a Haitian man, ran the lab in that free clinic. So, when the test first came out, I called him and I said, "Randy, I think I'm HIV positive, but I don't know if I should get tested or not."
He said, "I'm having a really hard time keeping the state from getting at my records. There's nothing we can do: There's no medication; there's no treatment. All they're going to do is tell you you have this disease, you're going to die, and probably really soon, so just go home and get your affairs in order and get ready to die." He was like, "I don't think it's a really healthy idea to get tested."
I was still working in the hospital at the time, and we were seeing a lot of HIV patients. So, fast-forward a year or two, and AZT becomes generally available. And I was in the hospital again. My mother worked in the same hospital as I did. She worked in intensive care.
I was being admitted, and I went up and talked to her and said, "I'm going to my room."
She came up to my room after I had gotten settled and she said, "There's medication now. You should go get tested when we get you out of here. It's time."
She knew I was gay. I was out about being gay since I was like in seventh grade. So it was just a conversation: "You're gay. There's a good chance you have been exposed to this. And now there's medicine, so let's go take care of this."
I actually always have been a bit of a rebel, and never conformed to what people believed was possible for a gay man. In the early '80s, I took in a throwaway kid from my neighborhood and started raising him. He was 12 when I took him in, and I think I was 24. When I went to get the test, I did not tell him, because I didn't want him to worry until this time. But I had another friend who worked in the system and he said, "You need to tell some people that you're doing this so that, if your test comes back positive, you have some people in your life that are prepared for it."
So my son has been with the same woman since he was 14. He's 41 now. She went with me to get my test results.
After I tested positive, the first thing we did was went home and told him. And that, for me, was the hardest thing about AIDS. Because I was the only father he had ever known. He hadn't expected to have a father in his life, and he just totally flipped out. He was like, "I didn't have a dad. Then I found you. And now you're going to die. That's just not fair."
And I'm like, "Listen. I promise you I am not going to die."
So it really was a different experience, actually testing positive and getting the results, as opposed to the couple of years when you were pretty sure, but not a 100 percent sure. It sounds as if that really was some sort of a turning point to actually have the results in hand, as opposed to just sort of speculating.
Yeah. And the weird thing is, it was much less scary actually knowing. Because there was so much that we didn't know in those days about what was going to happen that actually that fear of not knowing was much more huge than actually knowing. It was like, OK, I know now I have to do something about this. Let's get busy. Let's do it.
Did you go on AZT right away, or did you wait?
I went on it right away. My first T-cell count came back at 230. This was like in 1987, '88.
At that time, that really meant like 18 to 24 months, probably, with that kind of T-cell count and having some of the onuses I had. I immediately went on AZT. My T cells went from 230 to about, four or five years later, 1,100 and stayed there for years and years.
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