Spotlight on Houston Buyers Club

Club Founder Fred Walters Jr. Talks About the History of HBC and the Importance of Nutritional Supplements

Jeff Berry: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how the buyers club came to be about?

Fred Walters, Jr.: I come from a very conservative Catholic background. I was studying at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein [Illinois] where I began pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a priest. In my second or third year, I started realizing I had feelings for other men and did not know how to deal with it, much less reconcile those beliefs with the church's beliefs. When I decided to start dealing with those issues, along with those issues came a lot of fear, because there were still seminarians who were literally disappearing in the middle of the night. In other words, they got caught being active in their lifestyle and then they disappeared.

In order to deal with my newfound gayness, I decided to move to Houston, and figure this out away from home, which is Tennessee -- I'm from Memphis -- so I wouldn't embarrass my faith community or my family. A short while after I was here I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I still hadn't discovered I was positive yet and got involved in an AIDS organization, the People with AIDS Coalition, as a warehouse organizer. We go around and pick up donations much like the Salvation Army does, and distribute them to people who had been kicked out of their homes because their families found out they were HIV-positive.

I was in charge of that program, and then I became the case management assistant. While I was in that position a fax came across and it was on a wellness workshop that was going to be given by Nelson Vergel. I hung it up on the bulletin board and I was reading it and it said, "Learn how to survive until there's a cure by incorporating exercise and nutrition into your life." At some point during that time I realized that I was positive, before the workshop happened. I did all the crazy things. Contemplate suicide. Get ready to bequeath my belongings. Realize I'd never have a good relationship. All kinds of crap goes through your head, feeling betrayed by God. That time in my life was very embarrassing, but I went through it. Plus my whole support system was in Tennessee. I really didn't have any friends here except for one. So I went to this workshop given by Nelson and he had a list of supplements that he put on the screen that indicated that you would have a really good chance of living through HIV until a cure was found. And except for the basics of vitamin E, vitamin B, vitamin C, etc., I've never heard of any of these supplements -- Coenzyme Q10, alpha lipoic acid, NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine), Chinese herbs I've never heard of and still can't pronounce.

JB: [Laughs.]

FW: A friend of mine and I went out to a local health food store and we got some help trying to navigate our way through the confusing maze of supplements, and we got to the counter and the clerk said that would be two hundred and forty-nine dollars. And I looked up because I knew she wasn't talking to me and it was like six bottles in front of me, but I wrote the check. I thought, I guess I'm going to have to ask my best friend to help cover this check, and I left that store fuming mad, my face was hot from the heat. I remember that distinctly. I got back to the office and I called Nelson Vergel and I said, what did you say about a buyers club? Did you say there was a place in New York [New York Buyers Club, still in existence] where we could get these supplements cheaply? He said yeah, why don't we talk about that? So Nelson Vergel, Allen Huff, Joel Martinez, who is now deceased, and James Alexander -- a huge body builder -- we all met for coffee at a local coffeehouse and I told them, "Nelson has this really great information that we need to make more public and we need to help people access these supplements. This was my experience."

I sat down with them and they said great, I think that's a great idea. I said, I've never run a business before. I have dreams of running a coffeehouse one day but I don't really know anything about this stuff. They all helped push me along the maze, so to speak, and gave me support and helped me out because I didn't know anything about protein powder, what brands were good, how much protein should be in a serving. I kept my day job, and I was providing six nutritional supplements to six people. They were the basic multivitamins, vitamin E, vitamin C, protein powder, and maybe one or two other ones. Maybe NAC was part of them? And if a bottle of NAC cost 10 dollars, it was sold for 10. And I kept these supplements on a shelf in my closet at home.

Pretty soon I realized that I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of roasting coffee or selling coffee beans. It was a real small idea. I got a thousand dollars from some friends to start, and with that money I bought a credit card machine and coffee beans. Well, what ended up happening is I developed a very small but loyal group of people who loved coffee beans within 48 hours of roasting. And I was also helping people gain access to nutritional supplements. But the drive for the nutritional supplements from people living with HIV very quickly overpowered all my coffee-loving friends. I decided I would have to give up the coffee because I was already working 70 hours a week taking orders for coffee, roasting it, delivering it, still doing the nutritional supplements, delivering those, running credit cards, and I just couldn't do it. At that time Starbucks was just moving to town and you know, there's not a buyers club within four states of Texas but we're going to have a Starbucks every quarter mile. So I decided to let the coffee business go.

JB: You said that time in your life was embarrassing? Could you elaborate on that?

L to R: Ricky O'Neill and Fred Walters Jr.
L to R: Ricky O'Neill and Fred Walters Jr.

FW: I was dealing with being gay and then on top of that now being HIV-positive. When I said it was embarrassing for me, it was embarrassing number one, that people would find out I was positive and/or gay. But I think the embarrassing part for me -- the heart of it -- here I was this educated individual and now I was contemplating thoughts of suicide because of the HIV. So my life was over ... those kinds of very negative thoughts that occur when the community has not yet dealt with the issue. I felt like I had the scarlet letter on my chest. So here I was dealing with a hard enough issue, being gay, and then on top of that I have to deal with being HIV-positive. And that was hard.

JB: Yeah. And then you founded -- it's called the Houston Buyers Club but it has a different name?

FW: Our legal name is Program for Side Effect Management. We started unofficially in 1996, but officially recognized by the IRS, I think, in 2002.

JB: So how many clients do you serve?

FW: We don't take federal money so we're not required to keep client demographics. We don't get the indigent or destitute population coming through because the funding isn't here. If I had to tell you the number of clients -- every year we serve about 2,000 individuals. And that is ranging from HIV to hepatitis B and C, cancer, and diabetes.

JB: So what other kind of services do you provide? Do you have speakers programs?

FW: Yes, we have this program that is community-centered. We'll bring in professional speakers to speak on HIV side effects, or hepatitis B and C, or diabetes. We found this wonderful man to underwrite the filming costs associated with these events. There's this company that we got to film our events, called Cool Arrow Films. They film not just the speakers, like Lark Lands, Jon Kaiser, or Nelson Vergel, but they also interview the people attending the conference, and make it fun to watch.

The other thing that we're going to pursue is the Discovery Health Network, because the information that we're doing is not just going to be about HIV. It's going to be about hepatitis, and diabetes. We don't ever hear people talking about milligrams when it comes to nutritional supplements. They don't ever talk about amounts. They just mention the supplements and the herbs. No one is putting -- I hate to say this -- their balls on the line and giving the ranges and dosing. And we are.

So what they do with these other programs is teasing these people with really great solutions and hope, but they're leaving them in the dark. So they're left with going into the health food store with people who may not know anything about chronic illness, and whoever they happen to get on the sales floor is who they get stuck with. Here's a good example. Physicians all the time will tell their patients, "Go out to the store and get some fish oils, and that will keep your cholesterol under control." Physicians who do that do their patients a disservice because they should be saying, "Your triglycerides are 50 points out of range and I think 2,000 mg a day of fish oils could help. Go and buy these at a health food store, and I'm giving you a prescription." Instead, they're doing like all these other shows are doing. They're not giving specifics. We are. We're saying to people, "Here's a good range, a therapeutic dose range that should be helpful to you with this condition." So that's the purpose of these programs. To give people specific information about chronic disease, side effect management when it comes to using traditional supplements. That's our main outreach that we do.

JB: Do you have a mail order service for people like me who live outside of Texas?

FW: We do, We ship pretty much everywhere.

JB: If you had to list the top five supplements for people with HIV, what would they be?

FW: I would say number one, a potent multivitamin. The top mistake people make with multivitamins is they are hypnotized by the words "one-a-day." And there is no such thing as a potent one-a-day multivitamin for people with HIV. If you're going to do a multivitamin you have to do several, several times a day. My favorites are Superblend by Super Nutrition and the K-Pax [KaiserPax] by Jon Kaiser [M.D., an HIV specialist in San Francisco]. Those are my two favorites. The second thing I would do is NAC, and that is a supplement that helps to increase gluthathione levels. It's very good for the liver. The third one is fish oils, even if you don't have high cholesterol or high triglycerides. Fish oils are real important for skin and other things in the body. They help reduce inflammation. That's probably my biggest thing, the inflammation part. The other would be if you're taking a high potent multivitamin you should add the selenium, but a lot of our HIV diets don't take the recommended amount of multis. Those are the top three.

If people are taking HIV drugs they have to take Coenzyme Q10, because what happens is that the drugs go into the body, as they're winding their way through the cave with their guns drawn waiting to shoot at the HIV viral cells, by the time they walk up to a dead body they say, "Oh no, that wasn't an HIV viral cell. That was a mitochondria." And so Q10 helps to protect the mitochondria, and if you don't protect the mitochondria in the body then you start opening yourself up to all kinds of organ and liver issues.

"Oh, how could I forgot this one. You know what we're seeing a lot of, Jeff, and you're not going to believe this. Actually it's getting a lot of press locally because Baylor University is studying this, but ... green tea capsules. We are seeing more and more people who are doing two grams a day of green tea capsules and their T-cells are going up between 40 and 100%. Dr. Christina L. Nance is studying that at Baylor and we see that here, and today I was watching a local television show and of all days for you to call, there was a show on about food as medicine and they talked a lot about HIV, and one of the things they talked about was green tea liquid. They mentioned that it was being studied locally for HIV. So we're not the only one on the soapbox about this. We've seen amazing results with that.

JB: Could you give me some numbers for dosage?

FW: Oh, yeah. NAC is a 500 mg tablet and people take anywhere between a 1,000 and 3,000 mg a day. If you're taking HIV meds, take two grams twice daily of fish oil.

JB: Any specific kind?

FW: Yeah, I'm so glad you asked. Always make sure it says filtered against PCB and heavy metal. There's a lot of that in fish and you want to make sure it's filtered properly. And the second thing is, don't buy your fish oils in a non-health food store environment. And the reason I say this is because in these warehouse retail places, the fish oil labels that are on the bottles are misleading to people with HIV. A lot of times they would put "serving size -- two gel caps," and most people read the label and they assume it's one gel cap. So you're thinking you're getting 2,000 mg of fish oil in one gel cap and you're not. The second thing they're doing is ... a quality fish oil will have broken down the two major ingredients in a fish oil, which are known as EPA and DHA. A quality health food store like Whole Foods or Houston Buyers Club will only stock brands that have those broken out. Warehouse and chain store pharmacies don't. And so people with HIV are not getting the right dosage unless they know how to read a label. They are not getting as good as they should be getting.

For the Q10, anywhere between 100-300 mg a day. The reason why the range is so wide on that is that it is the most expensive supplement on the market and some people can only afford to take a hundred milligrams.

JB: Are there resources for people to help them pay for supplements?

FW: Well, we have a very limited program, but for most people it would be either local Ryan White programs, which are places like AIDS Foundation Houston, and some other clinics. [Editor's note: Houston Buyers Club has a program that offers free supplements to individuals who qualify, based on donations they receive from manufacturers. See's Ellen's Hand page]

JB: Why have you remained successful while some of the other buyers clubs have shut down over the years?

FW: I think for two main reasons. Number one, most people in charge of buyers clubs did not know it was going to grow like it did and so most people, whenever they start a non-profit, they start it from a mission of heart, and they give the store away. If you can't afford it, they give it to you. And unless you have a steady stream of funding in place -- that's what I've seen happen. I have to say we were lucky because we had a royal bitch and I say that tongue-in-cheek because she was really a good friend. She was a bitch to me and said, "If you give the store away today you will not be here tomorrow. No! You may not give this away to so-and-so. You will charge them a reduction in price, but you will not give this away." And so I relied on her gut and her counsel a lot and to be honest, if I had not relied on her we may not be here today.

JB: Would that be Ellen?

FW: Yes! Ellen. [Editor's note: Read more about Ellen in "Facing Up to It," November/December 2004.]

The other reason was that we did something different that I don't think anyone else has done yet. We had an opportunity to jump to a retail space in a retail center and that's what saved our ass. We got the general public to come in here and start shopping, so it would support our programs. We went from one thousand dollar days to three or four thousand dollar days. So that's what helped.

By the time this goes to press, all of our [information on how to deal with] side effects should be online -- Lark Lands put them together.