‘HIV’ The Virus That is Losing The Battle
April 1st, 2021
OMAHA – That is a clip of the movie Philadelphia, which was released in 1993. Essentially, the plot is that Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) is a senior associate at the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. There, he hides his homosexuality and his status as an AIDS patient from the other members of the firm.
One day, a partner in the firm notices a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. Although Beckett attributes the lesion to a racquetball injury, it indicates Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-defining condition.
For many, the beginning of the 90s was the first time we heard about Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV, homosexuality, and homophobia.
The way the information was handled at the time suggested that only immoral people were infected with HIV, condemned to die soon and with no option to live a normal life. Since then, although science has made significant progress in treating HIV, people living with HIV still experience stigma surrounding this illness.
In February 2013, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, Omaha Native Daryl Brown received an erratic gift.
Days before February 14, Brown arrived at the emergency room due to seizures, which he had never suffered from before. On that visit, he was tested for HIV, and on Valentine’s Day, he received the results. Brown was 29 at the time.
“Came back in the room on the 14th to a very stark, non-supportive, non-emotional delivery of the diagnosis from the doctor. They came in, closed the door, said “we got test results for HIV -you’re positive. You’re going to want to talk to the caseworker to get connected to care, because you want to be in care,” and turned around, walked out of the room and closed the door,” Brown Jr. says.
That day, Brown was left alone in the room after receiving the news, without any support at the moment. He thinks of that day as “a trash experience.”
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is caused by HIV. The names HIV and AIDS can be confusing as both terms describe the same disease. To set them apart, think of AIDS as an advanced HIV disease.
A person with AIDS has an immune system so weakened by HIV that the person usually becomes sick from one of several opportunistic infections or cancers. Some of those infections and/or symptoms might include involuntary weight loss, memory impairment, pneumonia, Kaposi sarcoma (a type of cancer that affects the skin and internal organs), or tuberculosis.
Assistant Professor of the Department of Internal Medicine at UNMC, Dr. Sara Bares, works with HIV patients. She says she feels fortunate because in the field of HIV there is now very effective therapy. Now, HIV is seen as a chronic disease.
“The first thing I tell my patients when they come here and they have a new diagnosis and they come in to see us for the first time is that they can live a long, healthy life with HIV. We have really effective therapy that has made it so that the quality of life is very good and that the life expectancy is really approaching that of patients without HIV,” Bares says.
Nowadays, life expectancy for a person living with HIV almost compares with someone without HIV.
Brown kept his secret for months until he had things under control so as not to worry his family and friends. Brown’s mother had suffered two strokes and was concerned about her health.
“I held onto that information until I was on medication and until I reached an undetectable status, meaning that my viral load was so minimal that on the average test it was literally undetectable,” Brown Jr. says. “Then I could not transmit the virus to anyone else, either.”
Gradually, Brown Jr. has reached a normal standard of living. He enjoys working with HIV patients. He finds a lot of support in his son. He is also the author of the book “I’m Positive, I Forgive You,” which is about his progress towards forgiving the person who knowingly infected him.
Although information about HIV is handled differently these days than it was in the early 1990s, Brown feels that many people are still misinformed.
“There’s a lot of stigma surrounding HIV. There’s a lot of false perceptions about what it looks lik,e what it can be, what it does not do,” Brown Jr. says.
Brown Jr. says that he is the perfect example of how a person with HIV can live an almost virus-free life. He enjoys his work, family, friends, and reading books.
“I’ve told my story on multiple different platforms. I must share my story of world aids day here locally before. I have shared my story on some national platforms and then I also published a book sharing my story about my diagnosis and also how I arrived at a place of forgiveness concerning the person that knowingly transmitted the virus to me,” Brown Jr. says.
When Bares was in medical school in the New York City area in the early 2000s, she says she was struck by how providers cared for their HIV patients in different clinics in New York City. Her work became a passion for her.
“The providers who are taking care of them are so compassionate and so smart that I was drawn to be like them. It was a curable disease. They would take patients who came in really skin and bones looked, you know, days away from death and turn them around and make them better,” Bares says.
Dr. Bares says that the new therapy to treat HIV is very advanced. In most cases, only one pill a day is required. Therapy, along with healthy living, can help patients live almost without the virus being detected and without the possibility of transmitting it to others.
“It is like diabetes in that it’s become a chronic condition that we have an effective therapy for, but unlike diabetes medicines aren’t as forgiving,” Bares explains. “If our patients aren’t able to take the medicine every single day and have to miss here and there, we can have what we call a rapid viral load rebound.”
Treatments to fight HIV have always been expensive. Fortunately, a lot of ground has been gained in this field. Now, most insurances cover these expenses and certain subsidies protect those with low resources.
“It’s been eight years that I’ve been living with HIV,” Brown Jr. says. “I’m in a healthy state mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I think it is important to have representation of that in front of people so that people know this virus doesn’t have to win and, in my case, they are saying it won’t win.”
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