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November 21, 2008

The last of a dying breed

by Robert Toth

I am a 20-year survivor living with AIDS, and another World AIDS Day is fast approaching.

Much has changed, much has stayed the same or gotten worse.

I have lived long enough to see food trays left at hospital room doors of people dying from AIDS. Now the dying are being fed and tended to. I have lived long enough to see the preventative measure of “gowning-up” come and go. I have lived to see the stigma of AIDS unchanged, conflicting AIDS transmission fears and infection rates spiraling out of control.

I have lived long enough to see a young man with AIDS-related dementia wander in the rain, wearing nothing but his pajamas, looking for his car. I have helped change the diaper of a 35-year-old man’s lover. Some have withered away, suffering from wasting syndrome, spare as a baby bird of much-needed muscle and body mass. Now, due to advances in HIV medications, that kind of dementia and wasting syndrome is a rarity.

I have seen a family change the locks and strip a home bare while a man was at the cemetery burying his loved one, only to return to an empty, locked home. I have seen families and lovers left broken and bereft after losing loved ones to AIDS. Those losses and bereavements continue.

I have mourned the loss of better men and women than I. Many more are still living in the shadows with AIDS. Fearful of the stigma, weary of being alone or shunned, tired of the medication’s side effects. Many others are brave enough and strong enough to stand up and fight for continued AIDS services, funding and awareness. I am blessed in that I am still here fighting and writing with thinning grey hair, bifocals and my AARP card in hand. I am living proof of the incredible medical strides made in managing HIV and AIDS. I am blessed in living to see nieces and nephews come into my world and bring forth great-nieces and great-nephews. I am blessed in that I continue to continue.

In 1991 I saw the first red AIDS Awareness ribbon. Since then, there has been a literal rainbow of ribbons. Now, another World AIDS Day is upon us December 1, and like most other World AIDS Days I have seen, it will come and go with small, unnoticed, poorly-attended remembrance and awareness ceremonies. This year, another 56,000-plus Americans will become infected with HIV.

We need to wage a War on AIDS. This is a disease we know how to prevent. This is a war we know how to win.


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