Raising Awareness About HIV and Alzheimer's: Kelly Kittell

AIDS/LifeCycle Personal Stories of "Why We Ride"

Kelly Kittell
Kelly Kittell

"One day, I was giving a lecture and the world dropped out from beneath me," Kelly Kittell recounted. "I had no idea why I was up there and what I was supposed to be saying." That was one of the last memories Kelly had of ever working within his field. Shortly after, he took a medical leave and never returned.

Kelly was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, when he turned 30. In 1994, his then partner passed away due to AIDS complications and, unfortunately, Kelly's final memory from that era is of his partner dying in his arms. Kelly suffers from HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND), and with this, parts of his past have been unwillingly forgotten.

"It was around 2001 that my life began to go astray, and I wasn't sure why," he revealed. "Eventually, I kind of dropped off and disappeared." Kelly lost his job, his friends and, most importantly, his family. Nobody could find him. If it weren't for the ongoing efforts of his sister, Katrina Olsen, he might have been found after it was too late. Fortunately, Kelly was found over a year later, after which, he was diagnosed and treated for early-onset Alzheimer's and stage-three dementia. The effects had set in and Kelly had suffered severe memory loss and had only a 15- to 30-minute memory span. It wasn't until 2010 that he finally regained full capacity of his memory.

"When we found him, he could barely stand," explained Katrina. "The doctors in Nevada hadn't seen anything like this before and it wasn't until he got to San Francisco and found an HIV specialist that he was properly diagnosed." After an MRI, it was determined that Kelly's brain had diminished to that of an 80-year-old. Kelly's brain has rebuilt itself since diagnosis, and he is currently part of a study at the University of California, San Francisco, for Alzheimer's patients.

"Kelly didn't realize he was sick, and was in complete denial about it all," Katrina shared. "It wasn't until I took him to a restaurant and he ordered a meal, and then ordered a second meal, and later ordered a third." The confusion at the restaurant and the frustration and anger Kelly felt from it all were enough to make him realize that something was wrong.

"I'm not telling this story, I am telling the story as it was told to me," explained Kelly, who became emotional when trying to recall certain parts of his past. Most within the HIV community don't know much about HAND and how to recognize the symptoms in others. Kelly and Katrina volunteered for AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC) in hopes of raising awareness about the potential side effects that can result from HIV, especially in long-term HIV survivors who didn't receive the proper combination of medication early on. "There are so many people out there right now, dying because they are misdiagnosed, just like I was," Kelly said. "I am so lucky to be able to volunteer my time with ALC and have my sister be here with me, and hopefully make people aware."

AIDS/LifeCycle is a fully supported, seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's a life-changing ride -- not a race -- through some of California's most beautiful countryside. AIDS/LifeCycle is coproduced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and is designed to advance their shared mission to reduce new HIV infections and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS. This year, over 3,000 cyclists and volunteer roadies raised just over $15 million.