There is a wide perception in this country and in our city that the AIDS crisis is over. With all the new medications out there, people infected are living longer and many believe AIDS has turned into a manageable illness.
Why, they ask, is AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC) still around? Isn't it time to put away the red ribbons?
While we all want AIDS to go away, the truth is the illness is very much alive and well. It infects 8,000 people every day, and by the year 2000 more than 100 million men, women and children will be infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.
While the rates of death have been declining over the past few years — thanks mostly to the new drugs — new infections have remained steady, and there's a serious concern that with the new relaxed attitude toward AIDS the numbers will start to rise again. The bottom line: The crisis is far from over, and AVOC is needed now more than ever.
I lost my twin brother to AIDS on Sept. 27, 1994. Jerry lived in Seattle and was very involved with the AIDS organization in that city.
After his death, I wanted to continue doing the work that was so important to him. I contacted AVOC and got involved with the "Buddy Program," being a friend to someone living with AIDS.
AVOC does a good job in preparing you for this often emotional but rewarding work. During the 11-week training session, you learn all about the medical and psychological aspects of the illness. You learn how to be an effective listener and how to provide support in a compassionate, empathetic manner. You also have a chance to meet "real" buddies with their clients and hear about their experiences together, both good and bad.
I'm now in my fourth year of being part of this program, and I'm not going anywhere. In fact, I'm more involved than ever, being part of the Buddy Coordinating Committee that matches up buddies and clients.
After Eileen's first client passed away, she was hesitant to take on a new one — still very attached to the memory of Greg. After about a year, she was ready to start again, so I told her about Robert, a middle-aged white man new in this area who had few friends. Robert really just needed someone to talk to who would listen to how he was feeling both mentally and physically. I matched Robert with Eileen and let a couple weeks pass before calling Robert to see if the match was working. The emotion in his voice said it all. He told me he thanked God every day for Eileen, that she was really helping his life. He finally has a friend who understands what he's going through.
Susan has been Tammy's buddy for the past two years. Tammy has two small children and is unmarried, with no child support coming from the father. It's turned into a real family affair, with Susan's husband also being involved. He sometimes watches the kids while Susan and Tammy take in a movie or just spend some quiet time alone talking. I saw Susan awhile back and asked her how things were going with Tammy. Susan says she sees a "difference" in Tammy — signs we all learn in our Buddy Training that tell us the illness is progressing. Susan knows that Tammy will eventually lose her life to AIDS, and she's very concerned what will happen to the children. Susan also tearfully confided in me, "And what am I going to do without Tammy?"
The new medications prolong life for many who have this illness, but not all. Not for my third AVOC client, James.
James was a very strong, very proud man around 30. He was slightly retarded and, along with his AIDS medications, was taking drugs to help him deal with schizophrenia. James had brothers and sisters who lived in the area, but they never came to visit him. He didn't like gay people, and he did nothing to hide his feelings about them.
How James got AIDS is something he never told me; he didn't want to talk about it. We also never discussed the actual illness or the fact that, despite all the new medications he was taking, he was rapidly losing strength in his limbs.
The last few months of James' life were spent in a nursing home. I was his only visitor, and I saw him frequently during those last weeks. He always seemed a bit shocked to see me. I think he was used to people walking out of his life and not sticking around, especially when things turned unpleasant. During the final days of his life, James started to reach out to me and talked about his brothers and sisters and how he longed to see them.
I managed to get two of his sisters to visit in early April. This family reunion was what James needed to rest in peace. He died in his sleep the following day.
All of my friends know about the work I do with AVOC, and I get asked why I do this to myself. All of us involved with this program have our own very personal reasons as to why we do what we do. Megan lost her son to the illness three years ago. He never told her that he was gay or even sick. Nancy lost her brother, and Thomas a younger sister. Kathy lost a good friend and longtime neighbor. Cheryl thinks she's too absorbed in her own life and wants to learn how to help others, and Ken has the HIV virus himself and wants others to know that they are not alone.
We all have our own personal reasons for doing this, but we do have one thing in common: We want to make a difference in the lives of the people we're helping. To be there and be supportive.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I think my brother Jerry said it best: "Because we get so much back."
Do you have a reason for joining us? Have you lost a son, daughter, brother, sister of friend to this horrible illness? Would you like to be involved in making a difference in other people's lives? If the answer is yes, I hope you will consider being part of our Buddy Program. Your help is needed right now.
For more information, contact AIDS VOLUNTEERS OF CINCINNATI at 421-2437 (ask for Robin Jennings, volunteer coordinator).