Today is World AIDS Day
, which is why Twitter is red
and Santa Fe Community College is offering free, confidential HIV/AIDS testing
and Southwest CARE Center is organizing a farolito-bedecked remembrance
tonight (5:30pm) in the Railyard.
But for one New Mexican (who preferred to remain anonymous because most of his friends and colleagues don't know he has HIV), it's a day like any other. He's hoping he won't get sick. He knows more about T-cells
than any healthy person should. He's taking the antiretroviral pills he'll be on for the rest of his life. Here is the story of one HIV victim who, in a manner increasingly typical of New Mexico HIV/AIDS victims, had no idea there was anything wrong with him until the day he ended up passed out in a heap at the bottom of his shower.
This guy—we'll call him Pablo—is 46. In 2001, he moved here from Colorado, where he was born and raised. Then, in 2007 and over a period of several months, he noticed himself getting sick more and more frequently. Eventually, the sickness didn't go away anymore, and he felt progressively worse.
“I was sick all the time,” he recalls. “I was on Nyquil, Dayquil, everything. Then one day I passed out in the shower.” His girlfriend had to rescue him; she got him to the hospital, where Pablo was put on a respirator. He had one collapsed lung, and the other was in the process of collapsing, he says: “They cut me open and put a tube in me right away.” Not that he knows that he recalls any of that.
“I can't remember too much,” Pablo says now. “From what I was told, I went in on the second of July—it was a Tuesday. When I woke up, I asked the doctor what day [it was], and when they said Thursday, I thought I was only in there two days. They said, ‘No, you've been in here two weeks.' I was out of it for two weeks.” The doctors told his girlfriend they expected him to last about 24 hours, Pablo says. When he finally awoke, 60 pounds lighter and with only nine infection-fighting T-cells (normal counts are between 500 and 1,600), Pablo learned that what he'd thought was just a bad cold was actually HIV.
“I couldn't fit into any of my clothes or anything,” he recalls. “I was just so scared; everything was a shock. I thought that was the end of the world.” The hospital connected him with Southwest CARE Center
for follow-up treatment, and for the first year, Pablo says, he couldn't do much of anything. He had to relearn how to walk, and only recently did his weight begin to approach what it once was. He takes HIV medicine every day, and though he often doesn't feel great and gets sicker faster, Pablo says a measure of normalcy has returned to his life. Fortunately, none of his four grown children has HIV; nevertheless, he takes care to warn them (and their children) of the dangers of the disease.
How Pablo himself contracted HIV, though, remains a mystery to him. In his twenties, he did use needles for drugs, and he has tattoos. “I don't know if it's from that, or from sex,” he says. “I don't know. I was never told.”
According to Trevor Hawkins, the medical director at Southwest CARE, once people know they have HIV or AIDS, risky sexual behavior declines precipitously. As in Pablo's case, not knowing is the problem. HIV, he says, “didn't really cross my mind until I got it.”
At his first visit to the clinic after being discharged from the hospital, Pablo wasn't sure he'd make it.
“I was crying,” he says somberly. “I was down and out. There was another guy that was at the clinic, and he told me not to worry about it. He said that the meds they give you [had] been helping him, and he was pretty much back to normal. I had a long talk with him.” He pauses. “It was just long—that first year was a long road for me. It was all new. It just happened, I guess.”