Heart to HAART
I miss the fiery sun, the torrential rains, and the lush greenery in Kerala, South India. I miss the erotic temple sculptures of Khajuraho, local foods (idly, dosa, and chai), Ayurvedic massages, and sunsets by the Ganges River. Life was so vibrant, intense, and fulfilling there that I hardly ever thought about my HIV status -- or the medications and my blood work. But then, I haven't done either of those in nearly two years. You may ask, "Is this denial or passive suicide?" Well, neither, really. I feel great. Take your meds. Don't skip a dose. It's enough to give a person a migraine. Then we insist on the importance of quality of life.
Listening to My Body
My non-treatment mode is not for lack of knowledge about such things. I'm quite well informed about treatments, clinical trials, and complementary therapies. I've taken triple-drug combinations and did my fair share of drug holidays before they were in vogue. I managed to achieve clinical efficacy and no drug resistance as I went back on the same combination after four drug holidays. It's not luck. I just listen to what my body needs. This is an innate skill that one must cultivate over time: an eastern cultural belief, a knowing -- not something one can easily explain to a person steeped in western culture. I'm not worried about my blood counts.
I stopped making fear-based treatment decisions and following what everyone else was doing a long time ago. Although studies have shown that muscle mass, bone density, height, weight, and body fat are different for women and men as well as for different ethnic populations, 90% of clinical trial participants are Caucasian men. These clinical results are then applied to the general population. I write my own treatment guidelines based on my own clinical trials on my own body. When the need arises, I'll go back to getting my blood work done and taking meds.
In the west, we're so inundated with the allopathic AIDS mantra, making it seem that the only way to live healthily with HIV is by adhering to a regimen of scientific medicine. However, I believe that when you have made peace with life and death and have trust in creation, everything falls into place. It works for me. I've had HIV for fourteen years. My mantra is: "Health is a state of balance between mind, body, and soul." My recipe combines the best of east and west: practicing yoga (for 21 years now); meditating daily; believing deeply in spirituality; taking vitamins and supplements, as well as my Ayurvedic and Siddha (traditional Indian medicine) immune boosters; exercising regularly; using recreational drugs and alcohol minimally; maintaining a sense of humor; and having good creative sex!
Each year my soulful desire beckons me to my parents' birthplace, India (I was born in Malaysia). I've been going to India for close to twelve years. I feel very at home there. My trips to the mystical land have taken me to spiritual centres, where I've met swamis, gurus, and other enlightened beings. I've spent time meditating in caves. I've done research into anti-HIV studies utilizing Ayurvedic and Siddha medicines and have met some of the researchers. This research has helped me discover more holistic treatments. I've incorporated some of the Ayurvedic immune boosters into my health regimen. They are bio-available tonics prepared according to ancient Ayurvedic texts for boosting immunity, increasing muscle mass and energy, and reducing stress. Unfortunately, they're not all available in the west.
A visit to Tambaram Hospital on the outskirts of Chennai completed my last journey. Tambaram is the largest AIDS hospital in South India. A trip to the hospital grounds dispelled any notion of wealth. Patients and families lined the road. Wild pigs, goats, and chickens were scattered about the acreage. This hospital is the best the government can do for the poorest of the poor -- the abandoned, widowed, orphaned, illiterate, and marginalized AIDS patients.
When I first visited Tambaram in 1998, I was horrified at the plight of the AIDS patients, the opportunistic infections, wasting disease, and lack of access to things such as medications, food, and bedding. The scene took me back to the epidemic of the early 1980s in North America. I couldn't just walk away and pretend there was nothing I could do. So, upon my return to Canada, I set up the CareShed Project with assistance from a dear friend.
Through the CareShed Project, we raised funds to start a back-to-work program for the patients, hired a nutritionist, and built a room where patients' families can cook food and stay overnight. With my contacts in the AIDS community, I started a drug donations program to the hospital.
I suppose it's ironic that though I choose not to take meds, I'm making sure these patients get theirs. Choice is the operative word here.
My recent trip culminated at the children's AIDS ward in Tambaram Hospital. Seeing all the children was overwhelming, hardened even as I am by my years. I should be accustomed to this. But it angered me to see so much inadequacy. We have so few resources, the doctors explained to me.
A Little Goes a Long Way
I left Tambaram knowing that part of my life's mission was cut out for me. With that goal, I know I'll be around for as long as it takes me to do what I must do, irrespective of my HIV status or my blood work. I went to India for the first time in 1989, after I tested positive. I found my roots amidst the wealth, poverty, beauty, dust, silence, chaos, heat, rain, spirituality, compassion, and greed. India welcomed my soul; Tambaram set it free.
Devan Nambiar lives in Toronto, Canada and is actively involved in HIV advocacy, research, and integrative health.
This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. It is a part of the publication ACRIA Update. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.