Living with HIV/AIDS in 21st century

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April 13th, 2017

Tommy Young-Dennis (left) and De’Sean Young-Dennis (right) pose for a photo. (Courtesy of Tommy Young-Dennis)

Omaha, NE – Living with HIV used to mean certain death, but now with advancements in treatments and medications, people can live mostly normal lives. KVNO’s Brandon McDermott had a chance to meet a serodiscordant gay couple living with HIV, meaning one man has the virus and the other man doesn’t.


Tommy Young-Dennis’ life changed when he walked into a dermatologist’s office about seven years ago. He had a breakout on his skin, thought nothing of it, assuming he’d be given a prescription for some ointment and go on with his day. But after a blood test, what the physician told him sucked the air from the room.

The doctor told Tommy he had HIV. De’Sean Young-Dennis is Tommy’s husband, but at the time they were just roommates and friends. De’Sean said when the doctor told them the news, it was just a bad situation.

“(The doctor) literally came in the door,” De’Sean said, “I was sitting in the corner he looked at me jerked his head around and said, ‘these look like a product of HIV, have you been recently been tested?’ – his complete bedside manner was just nonexistent.”

Tommy said to receive that type of life altering news in such an unprofessional way, left him speechless. He and De’Sean are a serodiscordant couple – Tommy has HIV, De’Sean doesn’t. After the visit with the dermatologist, Tommy and De’Sean went to the Nebraska Aids Project where the encountered a 180-degree flip in care. Immediately, they said, the level of compassion professionalism was “through the roof.”

Tommy said after that, he and De’Sean grew closer together as friends.

“To have (the doctor) with his poor bedside manner and receiving that life altering news – it really made me angry,” Tommy said.

Tommy has lived with HIV for seven years. He said he takes two pills a day this shows how far treatment for HIV has come in three decades.

Dr. Howard Fox is senior associate dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Fox has worked with HIV going back more than 30 years.

“I received my M.D. back in the 80s and I trained in San Francisco and it was tragic,” Fox said. “People – young men – were dying. In fact we lost three people from my med school class of HIV and AIDS.”

Fox said in the 1980s, doctors and researchers alike were perplexed at what to do.

“There was no way to treat it,” Fox said.  With basic and applied – this gets to the translational and clinical research I was just talking about – we developed a whole realm of treatments which initially were difficult, the treatment had side effects and it had to be taken frequently. But, now most people are on one pill a day.”

He said there is no cure, but that we’re “leaps and bounds away from where we were,” in the 80s.

“So this is the wonderful thing – people aren’t dying there and getting those terrible infections that we never saw before which were all of a sudden were in these immunosuppressed people,” Fox said.

De’Sean said after Tommy was diagnosed with HIV, because he cared for Tommy, he knew what he had to do.

“It was a reassuring thing (hearing the results),” De’Sean said. “I knew at that point I just couldn’t leave him. He became the most important thing to me at that time. So, it did in a lot of ways bought us closer together.”

From there De’Sean and Tommy grew together as more than friends. It wasn’t an easy ride. One night De’Sean was at work and he got a sinking feeling. Tommy wasn’t answering his phone. He drove home, even though he could’ve lost his job for leaving without notice. He found Tommy at their apartment contemplating taking his life.

“I had the intention on taking my life,” Tommy said. “I had fallen into a deep depression and felt hopeless.”

He consoled Tommy, he told him he had a whole life ahead of him to live – people all around him who cared for him, especially the one there with him, De’Sean.

“It was still a death sentence,” Tommy said. “I’m going to die, so why don’t I just cut it off at the legs? That was just the mentality that I had. But, the night decided to come home from work early, he put the kibosh on it so to speak. He saved me.”

Recent research conducted by Public Health England show men with HIV are twice as likely to commit suicide, double the rate of the general population. Later, Tommy and De’Sean started dating and were married in 2011.

Tommy now gives speeches and presentation to groups at the Nebraska Aids Project (NAP). NAP gives HIV tests, links members to health care representatives, they offer support groups among other things. Tommy said when he speaks at NAP sessions he tries to convey the importance of getting tested regularly.

“There is still a lot of stigma that needs to be disproven and a lot of false information that’s out there as well,” Tommy said.

De’Sean said they don’t do the work they do for publicity but to pass on knowledge of a subject with so many misconceptions. Both Tommy and De’Sean are African-Americans. De’Sean said in the African-American community, HIV and Aids aren’t freely talked about.

“When I grew up this was never talked about in our home. This was not something that mom and dad sat down and (spoke about). It was almost a taboo subject – we didn’t talk about it.”

Tommy agreed. He said since finding out he had HIV, seven years ago, the HIV is now undetectable in testing.

“I followed my doctor’s orders – stuck to my medical regimen of medication and I’ve  been able to live a normal, noninvasive life because of it,” Tommy said.

Tommy and De’Sean said they both have strong support from family and friends. They hope to pass along truth about living with HIV and help educate people about misunderstandings and inaccuracies about the disease.

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