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Surviving a Death Sentence: 27 Years With HIV

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By Mervyn Kaufman on August 23, 2012

A 3-D HIV cell.

When you prepare for death and it doesn’t come, you’re left asking, “Why me?”

The recent international AIDS conference, held in Washington, D.C., brought together nearly 24,000 participants, all of whom agreed that though the AIDS death toll has dropped precipitously in recent years, no preventive vaccine was even a glint on the horizon.

Numbers and statistics dominated discussion. After all, some 34 million people are known to be AIDS-causing carriers, though more than two-thirds of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. (India and Southeast Asia have 4.2 million victims; the U.S., 1.1 million).

The AIDS epidemic is global. Research takes place on many fronts, some of them well funded, but numberless experts concur sadly that an actual cure is “way upstream.”

What’s lost in all of this is why some HIV-positive victims have successfully avoided AIDS onset and others have not. One of them is my friend Richard Browner. Diagnosed as HIV-positive back in 1985, he remains alive and well, with no signs that the virus ever entered his system. His partner, Jacques Baudot, never had such luck, however.

“I had no symptoms,” Richard recalls, “but six months after Jacques was diagnosed as HIV positive and already feeling unwell, I decided it would be wise to see my doctor and take preventive action.” He, too, tested positive, but as his T-cell count was above 1,000, well into the normal range, no treatment was prescribed, only watchful waiting.

“Stories that circulated then about the possible causes of HIV/AIDS were anecdotal, cautionary and often nothing if not lurid,” Richard recalls. “Still, I took it as a given that my life would be foreshortened. I just accepted the fact that once I’d been diagnosed I’d have to live with whatever it was until that moment arrived. But I was never afraid of it. I did think about it — what my fate was likely to be — but for some reason I never dwelled on it.”

Jacques’ case with different — at the time considered classic. With AZT the primary drug of choice then — despite its minimal effectiveness and often unpleasant side effects — his health gradually deteriorated.

“He just got sicker and sicker,” says Richard. “His T-cell count eventually dropped to zero, which meant that his immune system was virtually worthless.”

Though Jacques never had Kaposi’s sarcoma, which ulcerates the flesh, he did contract P.C.P., a form of pneumonia that resists even the most exotic antibiotics. Six years after the initial diagnosis, Jacques was hospitalized for treatment of what his physician called a “whopping” sinus infection, which failed to respond in any way to antibiotics.

“It was there, in the hospital,” Richard recounts, “that all sorts of deadly infections were discovered.” These included a fungus that had invaded Jacques’ system. When, ultimately, it reached his brain, Jacques’ doom was sealed.

“During the last few months of his life — a horrible period that also took a stressful toll on me — my T-cells plummeted,” says Richard. Visiting his doctor a week after his partner’s death, he learned that his cell count was down to 300, the danger point below which opportunistic infections could present.

“He immediately put me on a corrective regime,” he says. Richard doesn’t remember what prophylactic was prescribed, but ultimately he was given a daily cocktail — of two meds: Truvada and Efavirenz. He continues to take both pills nightly and, having moved from the East Coast to Palm Springs, California, now has quarterly checkups at a VA medical facility in a nearby town.

He feels good today, and as he reports, “My T-cell count has been climbing steadily; it’s somewhere around 700. I may never get up to 1,000 again, but I’m still asymptomatic. It certainly doesn’t look like I’ll ever die of AIDS. Probably, I’ll die of old age, which at nearly 82 I guess I’m already in.”

Richard’s family calls him a miracle man, and a doctor friend — who has featured him at AIDS-related medical seminars and conferences — concurs. But the mystery prevails.

“What,” he wonders, “is it in my system that has somehow allowed me to sidestep everything from the simplest symptoms right down to the worst? I don’t think about it anymore; I just get on with things.”

Richard could be a poster child for HIV-positive patients who hope to avert the onset of AIDS — except for one thing: Having survived so brilliantly for 27 years, he may be a one-in-a-million example.

This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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