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Back to a Future: One Man's AIDS Tale Shows How Quickly Epidemic Has Turned

Sanford
Oncologist 1997, 2 (2): 115-120
10388039
WHEN IT WAS CALLED 'GRID': One year ago today, I told my colleagues that I was dying of AIDS. I had been fighting it for years-the illness and the telling. I had been taking AZT, and briefly even a drug given to lepers. But now I was gaunt, tired and rather sure I was losing the battle. I gave my boss an obituary I had written-I'm a features editor on Page One of The Wall Street Journal, so I certainly didn't want anybody else writing it-sent a note to my boss's boss and started saying my goodbyes. Last week, my doctor, Jerome E. Groopman, noticed that I am getting fat and said it wouldn't be a bad idea if I went on a modest diet. At age 53, I am going to the gym again. I need to buy some new clothes. I am planning to one day retire with my partner of 28 years, who is HIV-negative. What has happened in the past year, at least for me, is a miracle that couldn't have taken place at any other moment. The year 1996 is when everything changed, and very quickly, for people with AIDS. I have been grappling with this disease for nearly a decade and a half, almost since the beginning, when it was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. I've outlived friends and peers, and now I find myself in the unusual position of telling people how I've survived this scourge, something I never thought would happen. My condition could change for the worse tomorrow. But today I feel well again. Thanks to the arrival of the new drugs called protease inhibitors, I am probably more likely to be hit by a truck than to die of AIDS. In coming alive again, I've learned the value of a good doctor and good friends-and the importance of being honest with yourself, your co-workers and the people you love. My battle with AIDS, I'm certain, began in December 1982, at a bathhouse in Manhattan's East Village during a sexual encounter with a man whose name I didn't catch. Like other gay men, I had kept up with newspaper reports, beginning with a July 3, 1981, New York Times story with the fateful headline: "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." Nevertheless, going to the baths was a big part of gay culture back then, and here I was. Old habits die hard. At the time, the federal Centers for Disease Control and medical authorities were saying little about this being an infectious disease. Indeed, they at first thought it probably wasn't. But it was pretty clear that GRID was caused either by the cumulative effects of too much sex (so many men, so many germs) or too much butyl nitrite (poppers), a sexual stimulant sniffed from little vials available for $5 at newsstands. The third possibility was that it was a sex-borne plague.

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