Living with HIV/AIDS in 21st century


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 and assumed 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, Tommy’s husband, said the doctor’s poor bedside manner compounded the shock. Tommy and De’Sean were roommates and friends and the time of the diagnosis.

“(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 meaning Tommy has HIV and De’Sean doesn’t. After the visit with the dermatologist, Tommy and De’Sean went to the Nebraska Aids Project where they encountered a 180-degree flip in care. Immediately, they said, the level of compassion professionalism was “through the roof.”

Tommy said after the visit to the Nebraska Aids Project, 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, which shows how far treatment for HIV has come in three decades.

Dr. Howard Fox, senior associate dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has worked with HIV for 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 to HIV and AIDS.”

Fox said in the 1980s, doctors and researchers alike were perplexed about how to treat HIV and AIDS.

“There was no way to treat it,” Fox said.  “This gets to the translational and clinical research. We developed a whole realm of treatments which initially were difficult. The treatment had side effects and it had to be taken frequently.”

Now most patients take around one pill a day. Fox 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 in these immunosuppressed people,” Fox said.

After Tommy was diagnosed with HIV, De’Sean said he knew he would be Tommy’s caregiver.

“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, in a lot of ways it brought 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 of taking my life,” Tommy said. “I had fallen into a deep depression and felt hopeless.”

De’Sean consoled Tommy, he told him he had his entire life ahead of him to live and 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. The night De’Sean 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, twice the rate of the general population. Later, Tommy and De’Sean started dating and 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 and other assistance. 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,” De’Sean said. “This was not something that mom and dad set 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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