Each month we profile a hero in the fight against HIV -- a researcher working to stop the disease, a staff member improving health in our community, a dedicated donor, or someone living with HIV who's an inspiration to everyone around them. This month we profile David Duncan, a longtime participant, Positive Pedaler, and supporter of AIDS/LifeCycle. His passion and commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS is nothing short of heroic.
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This June, David Duncan will hop on his bike for AIDS/LifeCycle. It will be a bittersweet moment for him. This will be his 16th ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to fight AIDS, and his last one. At least for now...
Becoming a Rider
David first got involved with the ride in 1995, when it was the California AIDS Ride. He volunteered at orientation day, getting cyclists prepared to hit the road.
"I couldn't believe the enthusiasm and the spirit of the participants," said David. "It was completely infectious to be in that environment, even for just a few hours. I was hooked instantly."
David went home and immediately decided he would ride next year. He looked forward to joining the community of passionate and dedicated people.
Shortly after registering for the California AIDS Ride in 1996, David found out he was HIV positive. In an instant, his reasons for riding completely changed.
"Just training and preparing for that first ride felt daunting enough, and then suddenly I was also dealing with an HIV diagnosis," said David. "There were certainly drugs at the time that could help, like AZT, but it still very much felt like a death sentence. So I was worried and nervous, but for some reason I said to myself, 'I need to do this.'"
So David began training. He took it one pedal at a time, both on his bike and in his personal life. Over time, things got easier. He was able to make it up the big hills and his health improved. By the time the ride came around, he was ready. Or so he thought.
Accepting His Status
David arrived at the orientation day, this time as a cyclist, and he went through the process to get registered for the ride. As he was walking around he noticed a table for the Positive Pedalers, a group of HIV-positive cyclists. A friend encouraged him to check it out.
"I said, 'I can't go over there, people will know I'm HIV positive,'" said David. "At that time, I was just not ready to accept my status or talk about it publicly. But I circled the table for quite a while and eventually I got the nerve to go over and talk to them."
It would be a moment that changed David's life forever. He picked up a PosPeds t-shirt, and a flag for his bike that would identify him as an HIV-positive rider.
"On the first day of the ride, just before ride-out I was holding the flag in my hand," said David. "My friend said, 'Are you going to put that on your bike?' So I said, 'OK, OK,' and I put it on my bike. But I was still very reluctant to be sharing my status in such a public way."
On the third or fourth day of the ride, David was struggling to make it up a big hill when suddenly he heard a voice from behind.
"There was another guy riding behind me, also struggling to get up the hill," said David. "And he said, 'I was looking at the PosPeds flag on the back of your bike and I thought 'What do I have to complain about?''' He said he felt inspired watching me ride up the hill and it made him feel so proud to be on this ride with me. It was a complete mind turn for me, to think about it that way -- that my positive status would actually inspire someone else."
By the time David arrived in Los Angeles he was a different person, and he never looked back. In the years since that first ride, he's ridden 11 times, been a volunteer "roadie" two times, and worked as an AIDS/LifeCycle staff member twice. He's also spent many years as a training-ride leader and as co-chair of the Positive Pedalers.
As we mentioned, this will be David's last AIDS/LifeCycle. To understand why, you have to go back to a pivotal moment in 2007.
In September of that year, David was participating in a multi-day ride in Oregon and he was on a steep climb up to the rim of Crater Lake.
"I was going up the hill and suddenly I couldn't ride anymore -- I was having a lot of trouble breathing," said David. "I made the hard decision to leave the event because I simply couldn't keep riding. I couldn't catch my breath anymore and I didn't understand what was going on."
As soon as David got back home he went to a doctor. His pulse was only 32 beats per minute, dangerously low. He was immediately rushed to the emergency room and doctors found a third-degree heart block. The electrical signals that tell the heart to pump had stopped working. David then went into surgery and doctors implanted a pacemaker.
"It's been a challenge," said David. "I'm much younger and fitter than most people who have a pacemaker. But the doctors tried to make sure I could still do the things I like to do, such as riding my bike."
For a time things got better. But earlier this year, David collapsed several times while riding his bike and leading training rides. He went back to his cardiologist, who conducted some tests which revealed an anomaly in his heart. Two of the heart's chambers were pumping at slightly different times, in effect overriding the signals from the pacemaker.
Fortunately, his doctor was able to adjust the pacemaker to address the anomaly. It has allowed him to get back on his bike. He's not quite as strong has he's been in the past, but he is certainly committed to returning to AIDS/LifeCycle this year.
"Before that doctor's visit I was feeling for some time that I can't do this anymore, I'm getting too old for this," said David. "But the more I thought of the ride and its incredible, positive effect for me, I decided I need to come back to AIDS/LifeCycle one more time, and on my bike. I might not be able to ride every mile, but the important thing is being there, raising the money, and putting out the effort to help other people."
David says he's happy to be leaving AIDS/LifeCycle on a high note.
"The ride has been a transformative experience for me," said David. "There are very few places that are as amazing as the ride can be. It has changed my life. It's going to be hard to leave."
David is now moving on to new adventures in his new hometown of Portland, looking forward to creating a ride that supports HIV/AIDS services in the local community.
But AIDS/LifeCycle is part of David's life forever. And while this is his last ride, he says there is one thing that would bring him back.
"We've talked for many years about a 'victory ride' when there is finally a cure for AIDS," said David. "When that happens, I'll be back."
The entire AIDS/LifeCycle community will welcome David back with open arms, anytime.
Will you join David this year on AIDS/LifeCycle, as a rider or a roadie? What has the ride meant to you? If this is your first time as a rider or roadie, what are you looking forward to? Share your messages of support for all the participants of AIDS/LifeCycle!