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You were diagnosed in 1993. How did you find out you were positive?
I actually found out while I was still in the Navy. That time, from the mid-'80s on up, was quite an experience because, for the majority of my friends who found out they were positive, it was so secretive. They would take the test, and if they were positive, they literally disappeared within hours of finding out their status, because they were positive, of course. If they were positive, they were actually taken off of the ship, or the command, and taken directly to the hospital to be checked out. But at that time, [the military] told them they couldn't call anybody or say anything. That kind of scared us, because we're thinking, okay, you just took our friends away. We were kind of freaked out about that.
Did you know other people who disappeared from the Navy after they were diagnosed with HIV? Were they not allowed to talk about their diagnosis?
Well ... in the very beginning it took about a month until we heard from them. We heard that they were close, and I would think, OK, as long as you're OK. But as time went on the military, believe it or not, they actually were one of the first organizations to actually attempt to deal with HIV (members that had HIV) -- and they stumbled along. Some people reacted rather violently [to their diagnoses] and were rather sad. I myself -- because I saw my friends and I realized that I wasn't an angel, that I had been out there and had been sexually active -- I had a coin flip just as much as anyone else. At that particular time I had a partner, and he found out he was positive six months before I found out. He took it kind of hard because he was thinking he had infected me. I told him that it would be impossible for us to pinpoint.
What was your reaction?
I was rather calm when [I found out]. I remember -- it was one of those things you almost don't forget -- it was just prior to the ship leaving, and what they do, when the ship leaves and they're going to be gone for a while, they want to give you a physical. They give you a physical at least once a year. They make sure everybody takes an HIV test. I wasn't that surprised [at my test results], but I'll never forget. I came back from the weekend, because I had been with my partner at the time, and the ship was stationed in New York. I came back and I got to the ship and it was about six in the morning. I changed into my uniform and I was getting ready to go and join the rest of my co-workers when one of my bosses, one of my supervisors came down and said, "You need to go see the captain. The captain needs to see you right now."
Yes. The CO [commanding officer] of the ship. He had to give me my report according to Navy regulations at the time.
Would that happen with any health report or was it only because your test had come back positive?
It was basically because it was HIV. But I think now they've kind of mellowed out to where they put you in with the medical people. They've since mellowed out, but it was pretty cloak-and-dagger at that time.
At the time I was already preparing myself to leave because I was going to be getting out of the military anyway. So I thought, OK, maybe this is my exit interview. I'm thinking, OK, fine. So I go up there and we talk about everything. I mean, we talk about everything under the sun. This man barely knew who I was. I mean he knew who I was, but it wasn't personal. We're talking about all these other things and I'm thinking, "OK, why am I here?" I didn't say anything.
So finally he spit it out. He said, "So, one of my duties as your commanding officer is that I need to tell you the results of one of your tests -- of some of the tests that you took." Finally he spit it out. "It has come to be that you are HIV positive."
Now, unbeknownst to me, outside the door was the executive officer, the second in command, and two chaplains, who were standing out there just waiting -- I guess for me to fall out, cry, whatever else. I was actually quite calm. They thought I was psychotic, because I was just too calm. They were saying, "He's gonna blow! He's gonna blow!" And I said, "No, I'm actually OK."
Why were you so calm?
Well, like I said, I had friends, and I saw them when they went through it. I had pretty much accepted some things about myself. You know, not that I was gloom and doom, but I wasn't surprised. I was a little shocked, but I wasn't shocked to the point of thinking, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do?" That came a little later. Initially I thought, "Alright, it finally happened. Take a deep breath. I need to move. I need to keep going." But the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it with them.
Well, they weren't close, personal friends, were they?
Right, and besides, like I said, it was kind of weird, the whole conversation in the beginning, and now they're asking, "Well, how do you feel?" I said, "Sir, I'm really OK. I just need to find out what happens next, and what I need to do."
One of my good friends was working in the ship's office. He saw me, but he had to keep quiet, because he knew [about my test results]. They told him to make up my orders to go to the naval hospital in Bethesda, and he couldn't tell me. So after I came down from seeing the CO, he was in tears. He said, "Oh, my God, man, I am so sorry."
How long had he known?
They probably got that message on Friday, so he knew all weekend. I didn't blame him. The people that had to type up the orders, they knew. But they were told, "Don't say anything," because they didn't want to spook me. They thought I might hurt myself or hurt someone. I kind of understand that. But at the time I was calm. This was the middle of October. I had actually taken the test in September, so it had taken a couple of weeks to come back -- that's long before we had all this quick stuff [rapid testing]. They asked me, "Well what do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I'm going to need some time to myself before I report." The CO said, "Well, look, we'll just make it travel time and we'll give you some leave time so you can have some time to yourself."
You took this leave after you went to the hospital?
No, this was before. This was while I was on my way. They didn't fly me right away, because I had to go from New York to Bethesda, Maryland, which is just outside Washington, D.C. My partner at the time lived in Philadelphia, which is in between [the two cities]. So they actually allowed me to spend a few days there and then I reported to the naval hospital in Bethesda. That was actually very good because I was able to just be calm, be with someone that cared about me, and just run through the feelings, run through the emotions -- cry, scream, kick, whatever. But at that time [when they gave me my test results], I just had to hold it together. Once I was there with my partner, we laughed, we cried, we spent a lot of time [together]. Let me see, that was Monday. So on Thursday, I was on my way to Bethesda, Maryland.
How have your feelings about HIV changed since then?
Well, I've accepted HIV as far as I'm concerned. It's a part of me, like my hair color, my foot size, the size of my body -- it's a part of me that is not going away. I know people that say they hate their HIV, they hate the strain of the virus and everything. I don't necessarily hate it. I actually learned a lot from a psychologist that was at the national naval medical center in Bethesda.
You knew this psychologist back in 1993?
This was back in 1993 when I met him. He -- just to give you an idea -- he looked like the Crypt Keeper [from the "Tales from the Crypt" television series]. Literally. He was a very thin, frail man. He wore little bitty glasses. He cackled like him -- the whole nine yards. This was before they even had the Crypt Keeper. But one of the things he taught us was, you must love your HIV. Of course, when you say this to a room full of positive service members in the early '90s, we're looking at him thinking: You have lost your mind. What the hell are you talking about? What are you trying to say?
Through presenting it like that, he told us that your body reacts better to something you accept. Because you can actually manage it better. If you try to fight something you don't know about, you might eventually hurt yourself. It didn't make sense right then, but over time it made a lot of sense. I tell people that to this day. It helped me. I don't necessarily love my HIV, but I definitely accept it. I carry it. If I don't feel good, I don't always say, "Oh, it's HIV." It might be something else -- allergies, athlete's foot, a crick in my back. Not everything is HIV. But when it is, I think, okay, this is just the day for it, and I'm able to move forward.
How long do you think it took you to process your diagnosis completely? It sounds like you're at peace with it now.
Oh, yes. I would say, if I had to put a time limit on it, I'd say [it took about] a good year to really just grasp my diagnosis and hold on to it. There were days where I thought, man, I wish I didn't have this. I still have that thought, but it's not nearly as serious as it was. But when I thought it then, it was. A lot of my friends that I knew were positive, they actually jumped on me pretty tough, because I had been negative and then I turned up positive. They said, "What are you doing? You see us. You see what we go through. Why? What happened?" And they were friends, so after they ragged me out pretty good I said, "OK. But if it weren't for you guys, I wouldn't be able to do as well as I can."
What would you say to someone who has just tested positive? Do you have those kinds of conversations in your work?
Yes. I've had them once or twice and I find it's better to be straightforward and almost blunt. Not blunt to the point of hurting someone, but just not sugarcoating it. Like I said, I was working [in] HIV testing and I had to tell a couple, because one of them was positive and one of them wasn't. I had a female partner with me, and she took the female, and I took the male. The male was positive and the female wasn't. But they insisted, "Oh, no, we've got to be together. We're going to take this together." So I sat them down and said, "OK, here's the result of your test." I had them look at it the same time I did. I put my finger on it and I said, "It says here that you are positive." I swear, it was the weirdest thing. They just looked at each other. You could almost see the words going between them: "What happened? How did it happen? Why you? Why not me? What did you do? Who were you doing?" But there was about five to 10 minutes of just unspoken silence. They'd look at the paper. They'd look at each other. They'd look at us.
The good thing about it is, here in Texas they do some very good training on PCPE, which is Prevention Counseling and Partner Elicitation. They try to get the partners to come in and be tested, once they find out one of them is positive. They try to get them into services as quickly as possible. So after they'd been quiet for a while I said, "Okay." I immediately went into the, "This is where you can go. You can go here. You can go here and get treatment. You can go tomorrow. All you need is an ID and this paper," and everything like that. "You don't have to worry about dying today." That's one of the things I always try to tell them: You don't have to worry about dying today. Because dying is something we cannot bank on. We know it's going to happen, we just can't put a time on it. So you don't have to put a time on it now.
You've been living with HIV for 13 years. How would you say it's changed you?
Let me say it like this: For me, finding out I was HIV positive was like being asleep and all of a sudden someone is holding one of those Big Ben alarm clocks with the great big bells on it and it's going off about two inches from your face. That's what HIV has done. HIV has allowed me to be a little bit more awake and aware of what's going on in my life, not to take my health for granted, not to take my time for granted, not to take my family, my loved ones for granted. I didn't take them for granted before but I definitely don't do it now.
Tell us about your family. You mentioned that you have a daughter.
Yes, I have a daughter. She is 21, and she has a son. He'll be two this year. I am a grandpa. That's the majority of my family. I'm still very friendly and involved with the family as much as I can be. Her mother and I still get along pretty good. My dad was a major part of my family; he passed about two years ago.
The other part of my immediate family is my partner. My partner lives here with me. He's a couple of years younger than me -- he's 40; I'm 45. He works as a nurse's aide and he's studying for his nurse's degree.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dallas, Texas.
What was it like when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Oh, wow. You make me think back far. Well, when I was younger I had a pretty vivid imagination. I thought a lot about what I wanted to be. Of course, when I was little, I think my father would tell me I wanted to be a scientist. Actually, he always told me that he and my mother wanted me to go into science, but that was just a momentary thing. When I was younger, I always felt a lot of pleasure from helping people. It really didn't matter what it was. One of my first jobs when I was younger was actually babysitting, along with paper routes and other things, but I never minded helping people. If I was helping people, I was doing OK.
So, as a child, I wanted to be a leader. I also had a secret ambition to be on the stage. I actually did a very little acting when I was in school. I did little things within the school system and had a lot of fun doing it.
What kind of work are you doing with SEARCH in Houston?
SEARCH is one of the larger homeless facilities in Houston. We are a day shelter. We provide some of the more basic services for homeless people, such as showers. They can do laundry. We serve one meal [daily] Monday through Friday. We also have other services. People that come there to provide the services -- such as the local county hospital district -- offer a "gold card" so [the participants] can get hospitalization. We have a representative from the Social Security Administration. We also have representatives from the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] and our local mental health authority.
That's quite an array of services.
Yes, and actually it's been going on now for ... I think this is 17 years. It's been growing every year. I am a case manager there. I see, on average, about six to eight people a day, and that turns out to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 120 a month. But at the same time, one of my specialties is working with people who are HIV positive -- who freely admit or report that they're HIV positive -- and I help connect them to services such as housing. With the homeless, that's your number one [priority]; you always want a place to stay. I help connect them to other services, and advocate for them as much as I can.
You've said you like helping people. What other kinds of work have you done besides your work at SEARCH?
That's another one of those challenging questions. One of my first actual serious jobs was as a lifeguard. I was also trained to teach people how to swim. I did that for four summers -- from the time I was about 15 all the way up until I was 19. By that time I was in college. Like I said, I had paper routes and I did babysitting jobs. I have to say, honestly, that I had jobs at fast food places, anything like that.
My first real serious job was probably when I went into the military. I joined the military at what I consider to be a late age of 23. I was actually in [college], but I had discovered that the fraternity parties were a lot more interesting than what I was studying, so I wasted some time in school. [Going into the military] was more like a promise I made. My mother died when I was six from lupus [systemic lupus erythematosus]. She and my father set aside some money for me to go to school, which I didn't know about until I actually started going to school. I realized I was kind of wasting my time in school, because my grades just kind of fell off, and I said, "Well, if I have the opportunity to make it up to her, I'm going to." I wasn't really sure what that [opportunity] was going to be until I accompanied a friend of mine to a recruiting station. This was in 1982.
This was the Navy?
Well, yes. I went into the Navy recruiting station. My friend -- who turned out to be the mother of my daughter -- she went in to the Marines. Now what's odd enough about it -- she talked me into going because she wanted me to support her, but when I went into the recruiter's station, I signed up, she didn't.
So she didn't ever sign up or she just didn't sign up that day?
No, she decided against it.
It's interesting how things work out like that.
It's funny. So right about then I decided to get into the military. Although I went through some trials and tribulations there, I look back on it as a time when I really matured. I spent 13, almost 14, years in the military. I matured a whole lot. When I was in the military, I was trained to be a sonar technician, which means we look for things under the water, through sound waves and things like that. Also, I was a career counselor; I did that for the last five years I was in the military. That was very, very fulfilling and kind of foreshadowed the things I wanted to do from there.
Working with people?
Exactly. Once I got out of the military, I actually started volunteering at an organization in Washington, D.C., called Us Helping Us, People Into Living [founded by Bishop Rainey Cheeks]. I worked under Dr. Ron Simmons [President and CEO]. He developed an outreach program where we would go out into the gay bars -- the gay bars that were populated by African-American gay and bisexual men -- and we would give out condom kits. He developed the program; I actually started out as a volunteer, and then about two years later he actually hired me to run the program. I started volunteering in 1992, in 1994 he hired me, and I worked there until I left Washington, D.C., to move back to Houston to be with my daughter.
My daughter and her mother had lived in Houston for the majority of the time I was in the military, and she was becoming a teenager and ... I'd already been away from her for a long time. So I didn't want to be away from her any longer. When I got here, I actually got into more work with HIV prevention; I started working more on the testing side. I learned how to draw blood and do testing for one of the organizations here called Bread of Life. I did that for two years and I worked with various other HIV organizations.
I went back to college and got my associate's degree in applied science and human service technology with a specialty in licensed chemical dependency counseling. I graduated from that [program] in December 2004. I worked for the local mental health authority. In turn I started working at SEARCH. I also want to say that I did a year's worth of internships at SEARCH before I even came there [as a full-time employee].
A year's worth of internships?
Yes. The first part of it was for my school. I was familiar with working with the homeless population through Bread of Life, because that's one of the things they did: They fed the homeless and provided a few things for them.
SEARCH was founded by a council of churches. Are you a religious or spiritual person yourself?
I consider myself to be a spiritual person more than a religious person. My dad had a little bit of a problem with the Baptist church when I was younger, so I was raised more in the Lutheran religion. That showed me a lot because I was able to see more differences by being an African-American young man and going to predominantly white congregations and worshipping with them and still going to some of my friends' churches, which were Baptist or Church of Christ or Methodist. I got to see a lot more religion so I strayed away from religion, so to speak, and I think I'm more spiritual now. I'm presently looking for a church. I like church, but the last church I went to, I kind of disagreed with the pastor a little bit, so it was time for me to go.
I'd like to ask you a few questions about racial identity and HIV. You're African American -- when did you first become aware of that?
I actually read that when [you sent the interview questions to me] and I thought, "What in the world?" But I thought about it for a minute and it's a fair question. I was born in the '60s, and I remember coming home and finding my dad in front of the TV when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed and he was about in tears. That's just one of the things I remember. You always say, "Well, where were you during this?" When I grew up, when I first remembered things, we were black. Actually, excuse me, let me back that up, we were negro. In the '70s we became black, you know, it was "black this" and "black that." My father really didn't like the word black or negro too much; he was kind of from the colored phase. So it took him a minute to come off the colored and join the black term[inology].
Then, as I got to be a young person, a young adult person, I heard the term African American. At first, I thought, well I'm not really from Africa; I'm of mixed race. Let me just say this right. I've got some relatives from Louisiana [who are] Geechie. It's another word for Cajun, or someone from southern Louisiana who's French. But I'm mostly a black man, when it comes down to it. Actually, to not get away from your question, I first realized I was African American more along the lines of when I became a teenager. This was like in the middle '70s. Middle to late '70s.
Was there a definitive moment?
No, it was more like just the passing of time. At one point, it wasn't cool to be called negro, we were black. Then at another point, it wasn't cool to be black anymore, it was African American. Now I'm seeing with my nieces and nephews and my daughter's friends it's not cool to be that, you've got to be the N-word.
We've come full circle?
In ways of looking at it, yes.
How have you learned to deal with racism?
I've kind of had to develop a slightly thick skin, because being an African-American or black man, I not only had to deal with racism from people who weren't black, or were white or whatever, I had to deal with racism from other people like me because of the way my hair looked. My hair is mostly straight. When I was younger, because I went to school -- it's funny that this book would come out right about now. There's an actor, Joseph C. Phillips, who did a book and the title of it is He Talk Like a White Boy.
Is it a novel?
It's a book where he's challenging the younger African-American men to step up and be more of a man like it used to be. He actually got the title because he took a little bit more time to talk proper, and when I heard it, he talked white. You know, he talked like a white boy. I got that a lot when I was younger. I didn't really understand it because I thought, that means they don't like me because I talk differently or look differently or my hair's different. That's why they don't like me? And it took me a while to just put my hands around that.
What would you say -- given all the experience you've had -- is the biggest challenge facing the African-American community today in terms of HIV?
The biggest challenge is a chosen ignorance of the facts. I'll explain that. I've spoken in front of churches, schools, many races, the whole nine yards. The one thing I still find, in 2006, is that people don't get that it can happen to them. Especially African Americans. You see, African Americans are separated, [because they think], well, I'm not homeless, or I'm not gay, or I'm not a drug user. Still they're doing it. The younger kids: "Well, I'm not gay or I don't have sex with a lot of people." Of course, we know, you don't have to have sex with a lot of people.
You can be straight, gay, whatever, have sex with only one person ...
I always put it to them like this, "If you have one unprotected sexual experience," and I'm not even going to get specific, "I'm saying one unprotected sexual experience where you traded bodily fluids, you have had an opportunity to be HIV positive." And that usually quiets a room down real fast. But I'm still amazed that people choose not to grasp and hold onto that fact, because it really can happen to them.
Are there any specific aspects of African-American culture or identity from which you draw strength yourself?
Not necessarily African-American culture, but the identity. My dad, I love my dad. I always have. I've always looked up to him. We've butted heads more times than I can count. But one of the things I always admired about him was, if he believed something he stood tall and proud, no matter what it was. If he was wrong, you had to prove him wrong, and he had to accept it. When he accepted it, [he'd say], "Okay, you're right." Only then would he back down. But he was very adamant that if you believed in something, you needed to believe in it wholeheartedly and you needed to believe in yourself wholeheartedly, because if you don't, no one else will.
It sounds like your father was a wonderful role model.
As a man with a male partner and as an African American, what is your experience having that dual identity?
When I was younger, I got called all kinds of names -- sissy, faggot, punk -- before I even knew what it was. Before I even understood what it was. So early on I understood that people could dislike me just for me being me. I didn't have to say anything to them. I don't have to do anything to them. They just can. That helped me kind of look at things a little differently and not to take everything personally. Because some people who didn't like me didn't know me. If they obviously didn't want to know me, I didn't have to waste my time trying to explain myself.
So that helped me out a lot. Then, when I found out I was gay, that was just another part of me. I accepted my own reality of being gay in high school, in my junior or senior year of high school. I had always thought about these things, but I was scared to acknowledge them, because that would make me bad, that would make me a bad person. My dad wouldn't love me if he knew. Actually, I held onto that statement for a long time. I found out later that he didn't like it, but he still loved me.
It took me a long time to just present that truth as it was. In the beginning, the only thing I was really worried about was whether or not my dad loved me. Everything else I could take or leave. But I ... would have to say that if I ever heard or understood that to be true [that my father didn't love me], if I had confirmation of it, I would probably come close to hurting myself, if I ever found that out. But I never did, because those were my own fears just kind of jumbled up and tripled up inside of me. But like I said, [being gay has] just been another brick in the wall for me.
And just to give you an example, I've done speaking engagements, I've been on local TV, I've been in churches, all this kind of good stuff. Now my partner, he's different. He doesn't necessarily hide the fact that he's gay, but he's not going to tell you, he's not going to demonstrate. Of course, he teases me all the time, "Well, all bets are off when they see me with you." And that's fine. I don't mind about that. But I know that I've got to temper my honesty sometimes because I don't want to insult him. I don't want to insult who he is to everybody else. So I have to respect that, and I do. I don't have a problem with it. But I do know that since we've been together, he's been more comfortable being who he his and can even come out and do some things with me.
It sounds like he might draw some strength from you.
Yes. I like to say that, whereas I'm outgoing, he's reserved. He'll tell me not to be so outgoing, and I'm always telling him, "You could be a little bit more outgoing." He actually causes me to look at some things I need to be cautious of.
That's partnership -- you balance each other out. How long have you two been together?
In February we celebrated three years.
What change would you like to see in HIV treatment, prevention or education for African Americans?
I want to see the government loose their strings for education. They shouldn't go all abstinence; they should do across the board, straight up health education. HIV prevention should be included. Period. If a kid wants to be celibate, or wants to be abstinent, there's always that chance. But I get so mad when they say that's the only way. Yes, that's the only way, but there are a lot of kids who have chosen the other way. A lot of kids are sexually active for whatever reason, and so we don't want to just not reach out to them, you know, and tell them, "This is the only way." No, we want to tell them, "If you choose to do this, these are your choices to keep yourself safe." And not nearly enough has been done. Oh, yes, we've made some steps, we've made some progress, but not nearly enough.
Do you think the Bush administration is doing enough for the epidemic within the African-American community in the United States?
No. Not at all. I don't think they're doing enough. Whatever they're doing -- they're doing more for AIDS in Africa, which is fine, that's great. If you want to help the folks in Africa, I don't have any problem with that. But you've got problems here, too, that you need to address -- address in a manner that will help everybody, not just African Americans, but everybody. It was bad enough, you know, all those days that we heard about Ronny Reagan, [who] didn't say anything [about HIV] until later on in. George Sr. did a few things. Clinton did a lot more. But then Bush Jr.? What can I say?
You spoke earlier about talking with young people in the African-American community about HIV. What are your fears and hopes for the next generation as they face the risks of acquiring HIV?
I always look back to the time I actually had to tell my daughter that I was HIV positive. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. Now, I had told her that I had HIV, but at that time I don't think she really understood it, because she was eight. She came to visit me when she was about 11. She was a young woman. The last time I saw her she was just a little girl. When I picked her up from the airport, and she had on a training bra, and she was taller and wearing makeup, I thought, "Oh, my God. Where did my child go?"
I took her to the National Naval Medical Center, and I took her through the clinic, I let her talk to my nurse, and the people who were there and I introduced her. I told her as much as I could tell her without putting her on overload. She looked around, and she saw it and kind of took in as much as she could. She didn't not understand it. But while she stayed with me, I woke up one night and she was crying. I asked her, "Well, baby, what's wrong?" And she said, "Daddy, could you die from HIV?" And I said, "I could, but I'm not planning on it." And she said, "But how do you know?" And I said, "I don't. I'm not going to lie to you. I don't know. But I'm doing everything I can to be here, and so are the doctors and nurses I introduced you to."
So as she grew up and as I interacted with her friends, I always took the time to speak frankly about sex, sexual behavior and sexual responsibility. I think that still needs to go on, even from the home. I even challenge some of the churches. I tell them, "You need to start talking about it, because your kids are doing it." I remember when I was that age, coming up in church. You know, teenagers, hormones raging, you know, going on a bus trip, summer camp, whatever -- it can happen. But if you treat [sex] like the sacred thing you say it is, and you teach them to treat it with reverence, and you teach them how to use it and not to abuse it, it can work out a lot better. Kids will probably feel better about talking to you about it, too.
A couple of times, [when] I've talked to some kids in a church, I've always had at least one kid pull me into a corner and talk about how they just had sex and they're kind of scared. One young lady said she was pregnant and she didn't want to tell anybody. This isn't HIV. This is just the consequences of having sex. So you know, my daughter's of a generation that grew up with HIV. Now I'm looking at my grandson. They're going to grow up with it, too, but I don't want -- if I have anything to do with it -- I don't want those kids to take it for granted. I want them to understand that, to learn it like everybody [learns], "Okay, if I touch that pot, it's hot. If I do that, then I can do this." You know, just understand that it can happen, and it doesn't have to happen to them.
People just need the information.
Yes, and to take it seriously.
We'd like to hear about how your health has been -- what kind of treatment you're on, your HIV history.
I have been blessed. I have been blessed because, like I said, when I found out I was HIV positive, I was in the military, and I got sent to the National Naval Medical Center, which is right across from the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. So I was privy to a lot of the new treatments as they were coming out. Every doctor I've ever dealt with, I demanded one thing and one thing only from them: That they be forthright and upfront. Just ... don't paint any pretty pictures for me. Just tell me what it is. I don't need any, "Well, it could be ...." No, I want to know what it is. If it's ugly, I want to know it's ugly. So far it's been good. Like I said, I've had the opportunity to be at the forefront of at least two different studies that studied my body and my body's reaction to different medicines.
You were in clinical trials?
Yes. Well, clinical trials with the National Naval Medical Center. Right now I'm in a clinical trial with the VA.
Can I ask what you're taking?
Right now I'm taking [several] HIV meds. I am presently on Reyataz [atazanavir], tenofovir [Viread], Combivir [AZT/3TC] and ritonavir [Norvir]. I'm taking four diabetic meds, three high blood pressure meds and I take a multivitamin.
How are you feeling?
I'm doing pretty good. I get side effects, and they're usually manageable. Excuse me, let me take that back. I get used to them. I don't think they're ever manageable, but I just get used to them. The worst I've ever had [was when] a couple of times they caught me on both ends. I was throwing up and everything. But that's been a couple of years since that happened. But like I said, now it's pretty good. I just came from the doctor Tuesday. Actually my T cells [CD4 count] are up. They're higher now than they've ever been. They're 650 now.
Yes. They've been as low as 150. That was four years ago. So now they're up to 650. My percentage is up. My viral load is right at 52. Just barely detectable. I've actually been at this level for coming on two years now. So everything is good. The only thing they're fussing me about is my diabetes. I just found out I'm diabetic. Well, not just found out, about two years ago. I did find out that one of my [HIV] medicines was contributing to [my diabetes]. I actually wrote a letter to The Body about the effects of Kaletra [lopinavir/ritonavir] on diabetes. One of the doctors told me there was some study that did conclude that Kaletra did add to sugar levels. I literally had to print that out and take it to my doctor.
So you're not taking Kaletra anymore?
No, I am not. I've been off that for about eight months now. But I still have to modify my diet and everything. I can't eat sugar like I want to.
It's not as rough as it sounds. I know my weaknesses. I like Coke and Mr. Goodbar. I can't have those. I can drink Coke Zero, though.
You were talking about how important it is to you that your doctor gives you the message directly and doesn't hide any details from you. Do you feel that your doctor has treated you as an equal partner in your health care?
Yes, she has. She ... [is] from Latin America; [her name] is Dr. Maria Rodriguez-Barradas. She stands about five foot one, and she has to look up at me. She's always saying, "You know, Mr. Garner, you have to take care of yourself. You have to exercise. You have to watch your sugar." And I'm used to this now. I would have the nurses falling out, until she walked in and said, "Oh, you think you're funny." But on the real side, she is the main doctor here at the Houston VA, and she is a whip. She is good. She's also in charge of one of the studies I'm on. So she is also involved with research, and she's good. She is good.
Have your relationships with your family and your friends changed since you were diagnosed?
Oh, no. Earlier in life, I was comfortable with myself, so I didn't mind telling people about me. For the most part I haven't experienced much negativity. I have experienced some, but not near as much as some other people have. My friends are still my friends. My family still loves me. I don't think anything has changed since I have been diagnosed. But like I said, it's been such a long time, now. They were as supportive as they could be. That was always good.
How do you determine the right time to disclose your HIV status to someone?
I have a saying. This is before I became involved in any relationships. I used to go out and have sex on a regular basis. My rule once I became positive I said, "Before we get naked, I'm going to tell you." That was just my rule of thumb. I chose to bring it up in conversation some kind of way along the way. I kind of let them decide to do whatever they feel like they needed to do. I got turned down sometimes. A lot of times I got rejected. But at no time, thankfully, did I experience any violence.
What were the best and worst responses you have ever gotten when you disclosed?
The best response when I told someone I was HIV positive came from my daughter, who looked up at me with those little brown eyes she has and said, "Well Daddy, no matter what happens to you, I will always love you." After that, it's like, you know, who cares? Everybody else can take a number, because I'm all right now.
The worst response, probably, was from someone I thought was my friend. This was kind of early on when I was still in the Navy, and I ran across someone -- we were close while I was on the ship -- and I told him what was going on with me. He kind of looked at me. He was younger than me. We never had a physical relationship, but we were close friends because we worked in close quarters, and we talked a lot. He looked at me and said, "How could you do that to yourself?" He proceeded to just berate me, "You should have known better. There is no reason why you should have it." And he was right. He was absolutely right. But of course, it doesn't help. It hurts more than it helps. Of course, in hindsight he was completely right. But he got so upset he just walked off, and I never heard from him again. I would hear about him through other friends, and I would send my regards on, but I never saw him after that.
What's the greatest adventure you've ever had?
I would have to say the time I spent on my first ship in the Navy. We rode out three hurricanes. We traveled through the Red Sea. We saw Iran, Turkey, some other ports of call in the Mediterranean Sea -- Italy, Spain, all those places. I'd have to say my time in the Navy.
If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
Ouch. One wish? If I were granted one wish, it would be that I was in a place where I was well off, I didn't have to worry about money, and all my family was around me and we were comfortable.
What is the story behind your e-mail address, which has the word "bowler" in it? Do you love to bowl?
Yes, I am an avid bowler! I've been bowling ever since I was 10 years old. As a matter of fact, I just came from a tournament in Dallas this past weekend.
Do you play on a team?
Yes. On a couple of teams. I love to bowl. Love it. Love it. There are times [when], if I have the money and I'm thinking about getting something to eat, I will go bowl, then I will figure out something to eat later. I have done it. I am guilty of that.
That's wonderful -- to have something that you're so passionate about.
Yes. I'm passionate about a lot of things. I just pick my passions a little bit better these days.
Thank you so much.
Click here to e-mail David Garner.