One of the store clerks in our neighborhood — let’s call him “Eddie” — went missing for over a month. Janna and I always loved seeing Eddie during our weekend shopping outings and he was always warm and friendly and talkative. We also knew Eddie was Gay because of the personal stories he openly shared with us as we shopped.
Greying and testing middle age, we also knew Eddie, a proud Latino, had dedicated the last twenty years of his life to living with, and taking care of, his unwell mother. His daily routine was to wake up, work in the store, and go home to her. He had no social life. He life was “job and mom.”
When Eddie disappeared six weeks ago, we knew something terrible happened and last Sunday our worst fears were confirmed when we finally saw Eddie again, behind his cash register, looking wan and uncomfortably thin. He told us the horrible news with a calm resignation: At 50-years-old, he wasn’t just HIV positive, he had full-blown Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Eddie had AIDS.
Janna and I moved to New York in the Mid 1980s — and landed squarely at Ground Zero for the explosion of the AIDS crisis. It was a terrifying time. Gay men were dying and nobody understood why. If they got “sick” they were dead in three months. It wasn’t until 1996 or so when the madness of these instant death sentences began to slow down and the miracle of antivirals started the new hope that being diagnosed as HIV positive didn’t have to mean you’d be dead before breakfast.
We thought, through education, and self-reporting, and the passing of 30 years, that AIDS has pretty much been nullified for new infections, and that assumption was based on a narrow practicality — the male Gay friends we had left stopped dying — so it was both shocking and amazing for us to learn that our old friend Eddie could be a “new AIDS case” in 2012.
After doing some research, it looks like Eddie is unique, but not alone, for his age group. HIV and AIDS are still strong and nasty across the world with over 1.1 million currently infected in the USA alone — AIDS just isn’t in the frontal lobes of the middling mainstream media any longer:
From 2006 through 2009, the rates among persons aged 15–19 and 20–24 increased. The rates among persons aged 30–34, 35–39, 40– 44, and 60–64 decreased. The rates remained stable for children (aged less than 13 years) and persons aged 13–14, 25–29, 45–49, 50–54, 55– 59, and 65 and older. In 2009, the highest rate was that for persons aged 40–44 years: 27.1 per 100,000 population.
When we reflected on the stories Eddie told us over the years, everything sort of began to fall together in an alarming manner. He was promiscuous in the ’80s when he was “young and pretty” and in his late teens. He hadn’t been active in the Gay community for 20 years because he’d been taking care of his mother. Fear of HIV and AIDS made him chaste. He never drank or did drugs. He became anti-social because he’s older and spent his evenings and weekends with his mother. He wasn’t politically active. He never had a reason to go to the doctor. He skipped normal checkups in all health areas including basic dental care. For his economic and social status, Eddie’s “life” of sheltered, non-preventative, medicine is not unique.
Eddie’s internals were a primed time bomb waiting to explode — and six weeks ago, his body blew up against him — and he was hospitalized for 30 days trying to get his newly-diagnosed, but 30-years-ago-acquired, AIDS infection under control.
The fact that the 30th Anniversary of the discovery of AIDS is this month is yet another chilling fact in Eddie’s new life:
“When HIV/AIDS was first identified in the 1980s, the world was shocked by how fast the epidemic spread as we struggled to find a solution,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement commemorating the anniversary.
Thirty years later, there is still no cure for AIDS, but there has been a leap in treatment strategies. Anti-retroviral therapies that have been widely used since the mid-1990s have made a huge difference in extending the length and quality of lives. As the CDC said in a recent statement, “Three decades after the first cases were reported in the United States, HIV infection is no longer inevitably fatal.”
The number of people dying from HIV virus that becomes full-blown AIDS has decreased because of those medical advances. But there are still about 38,000 patients whose HIV has progressed to AIDS every year. That rate has been fairly constant since the late 1990s.
Eddie is alive. We are grateful for that fact. He’s a lot of fun and he puts more goodness into the world than he takes out of it. He lost 40 pounds during his hospitalization. He says he feels fine — but Eddie always says he’s “fine” — and he has “the look” with haunted eyes and a face chilled by fear of the known against the unpredictability of what is certainly yet to come. He wasn’t allowed to return to work until he had an “all clear” from his doctor that he couldn’t “infect” any customers.
Eddie appears hopeful, but for those of us who lived through the ravages of the radicalized Age of AIDS in the 1980s, we have been steeled to the deadly reality of this damned disease; and even though we know the pain of “living with” is better than the inescapable “died from” — we see Eddie is still in grave danger and we’ll offer him our hope and support for every day of the rest of life.