Some people might call Eric Brun-Sanglard an over-achiever.
After moving to the United States from France at age 18, he finished his bachelor's degree cum laude in Mass Communications in 2 1/2 years. By his early 30s, he was a successful advertising executive with homes and offices in Los Angeles, New York and Paris.
And since becoming completely blind in 1995, he has started a flourishing business designing and renovating high-end homes.
"Business has been surprisingly successful," said Brun-Sanglard, "because I really wasn't expecting that kind of success. It's scary at times. For the first couple of times, I thought it was just an accident, but now I'm realizing it's not -- it's something people can truly tap into and appreciate."
Brun-Sanglard, who had been HIV-positive for ten years, was diagnosed as having CMV Retinitis in 1994 after returning from a business trip to Paris, and he wasn't sure how to react.
"I truly didn't know what it was," he said. "Even though I was getting checked by my doctor regularly, I had never been told about CMV or tested for it. When my doctor found out, he said, 'Oh, I must have forgotten to test you.' He had been my doctor for four or five years, and my T-cells were below 200, so he should have tested me."
Finding out exactly what having CMV meant was especially troubling for Brun-Sanglard. As a child, he had been plagued by nightmares about being blind.
"The dream I kept having was of a man walking down the street at night with a white cane, and I could hear the cane tapping against the pavement," he said. "I would have this dream over and over and would wake up crying, and this went on for the longest time. So when I found out I was going to go blind, it was very traumatic."
A New Future
The next year was a painful one for Brun-Sanglard.
His eyes were injected by needle twice a week with medication which his doctor hoped would slow the progression of the CMV, but all the treatment did was damage his kidneys and make him not eligible for the studies of protease inhibitors and other drugs which are now approved. He also came down with molluscum, which disfigured his whole face with sores.
Besides finding a new doctor, the one good thing that happened to Brun-Sanglard during this time is that he met and fell in love with Ian Whitman, who became his full-time nurse while studying to be a therapist.
With his eyesight completely gone by November 1995, Brun-Sanglard was forced to leave his former career and home behind. Buying a "fixer-upper," he and Whitman focused on remodeling their new home into a safe haven, decorating it with furniture from their travels around the world.
The experience became so therapeutic for the couple that they decided to turn it into a business, which they dubbed Eclipse Essentials and Design in reference to Brun-Sanglard's blindness.
Now, five houses later, the business is going strong even though their personal relationship has changed.
Whitman, who became HIV-positive after accidentally sticking himself with a syringe used for Brun-Sanglard's blood samples, last year broke up with Brun-Sanglard, whose viral load is now undetectable. The pair have continued to work together professionally, however, in an association Brun-Sanglard said can be difficult at times.
"It's an amazing experience because I'm working with someone I love and respect very much," Brun-Sanglard said, "but because of our past history, there are times that history comes back and interferes with the work. When we are truly submerged into work, then we work amazingly well because we complement each other a lot.
"We understand and respect each other, he can truly relate to my visions and make them happen, and the fact that he's been through the experience of my going blind and learned with me how to deal with that challenge, Ian truly understands me better than anyone else. As long as we don't let our past interfere, we do good work."
Sighted from Within
Brun-Sanglard, now 37, has been featured in the Los Angeles Times
and on KCBS News, and his work with Whitman has attracted the attention of potential clients who want them to work their magic on their own homes.
"We're starting to design for other people," Brun-Sanglard said. "It's something that we haven't done in the past, but that we're starting to do because so many people have asked us. They really need to give us total control of the project, though, so we've been kind of picky as to who we work with."
Although designing homes is something Brun-Sanglard started only after losing his eyesight, he feels he probably wouldn't have been as successful if he had tried it when he was sighted.
"The houses we do -- it's very much about making them beautiful," he said, "but it's also very much about creating a place of safety, where you have harmony between all of the different senses, from touch to smell to sound, and from the visual sense as well as the energy of the place. It's really about creating a lifestyle and sanctuary as well as a beautiful place to live in, whereas before it would have been much more focused on the visual side."
Through the Mind's Eye
Understandably, Brun-Sanglard is less focused on the visual side in other areas of his life, as well.
"As a general rule I think I'm a better person than I was before," he said. "When I meet someone, I really get to know the person for who they are without being influenced by the physical aspects of clothing or looks or age or race or whatever their hair looks like. I think I'm more in touch with the real side of life."
Brun-Sanglard said that it's important for people with HIV/AIDS to take control of their lives. "This disease is something awful, but it's also a challenge that we can take to better our souls, to make us more in touch with the reality of life and make us look at ourselves in the big picture instead of being attached to just the moment," he said. "With this challenge we have the choice to become angry and destructive, or make it into something positive and do something good with it.
"I believe the mind has an amazing power over the body," Brun-Sanglard added, "and as long as we believe in hope, we can do a lot of good for the shell that is our body and help it fight back against the disease. But if we instead bring in negative energy then we help the virus to destroy ourselves."