Positive attitudes can help people living with HIV
By Jay Nachman
Three years ago, David Gana went zip lining.
“People asked me if I was crazy. I’ve always wanted to do it. So, why not? You have to live your life,” said the 63-year-old South Philadelphia resident who has been HIV positive since 1987.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.2 million Americans have HIV. Of those, 379,000 are 55 and older.
HIV, the acronym for human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
Gana, like many others who have lived long, healthy lives after being diagnosed with HIV, relies on medicine and his own positive attitude to battle the disease.
“I strongly believe (that) you have to take ownership of being HIV positive,” he said.
At the time of his diagnosis, research into HIV was still in its infancy. By the end of 1987, there were more than 40,000 deaths caused by the disease.
After his diagnosis, Gana’s doctor would no longer see him as a patient. He found another, better doctor who was knowledgeable in treating HIV.
Gana was prescribed AZT, the first anti-HIV drug, but stopped taking it because, while it attacked HIV, it also had terrible side effects. He then went “holistic” and focused on nutrition and exercise.
In the early 1990s, protease inhibitors (antiviral drugs that reduce the amount of HIV in the body) became available. Gana’s doctor prescribed them for him immediately, and his health has been good to date because he continues to change HIV regimens to the latest drugs available.
“To this day, I do a lot of things holistically,” he said. “I combine the Western and Eastern philosophies of medicine.”
South Philadelphia resident Keith A. Carter has lived more than half his life with HIV. For him, it’s a chronic disease, a “wicked one,” that he has to manage.
“I’m a Black, gay male, and I happen to be HIV positive,” said Carter, 58. “I’m no different than anybody else who may have cancer or diabetes. I do blood work every three months. My life is not bad at all.”
Carter was diagnosed in March 1987, when he was 23. “It was devastating because back then everybody was dying,” he said. “It wasn’t looking too promising for a while.”
After a brief period using AZT, Carter stopped all medicines and eventually started taking protease inhibitors.
For 15 years, he merged his personal and professional lives when he worked for Bristol Myers Squibb, serving as a liaison between the company, for its HIV products, and AIDS activists.
After a tough bout with the disease, Carter dropped from 183 to 138 pounds and had to stop working. But he later built himself back up.
“My health, these days, is very good,” he said. “Let’s say, you’re an older person, and you get diagnosed with HIV today. Still plan for your future. Your future is not over.”
Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) is piloting a program with the William Way LGBT Community Center for older adults living with HIV. It will focus on helping to navigate health care services, forming support networks, and managing medications and side effects.
The Positive Self-Management Program, which began in May, provides information to help participants become good self-managers of their HIV, according to Heshie Zinman, director of special projects for the Elder Initiative at William Way, and a member of the PCA advisory council.
As people get older, they can deal with diminished capacity and age-related illnesses. “People living with HIV, which can cause a host of medical problems, have additional challenges. And people who are LGBTQ+ also have unique needs,” Zinman said.
Some older adults who are LGBTQ+ have unique family structures. Others have faced discrimination and harassment, which affected their financial planning and the ability to save for retirement.
“Things have been limiting for people who are LGBTQ+,” Zinman said. “The goal of this pilot (program) is to assist people and provide them with information to help them make sound decisions about their HIV.”
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.