Tears & T Cells

Tears & T Cells
My diagnosis was a quiet bomb, but the aftershocks still resound
by John Francis Leonard

Photo by Alina Oswald

Well, as you know, I have your test results and I’m afraid it isn’t good news. You’re positive.” Bad news from another handsome man, this one a silver-haired fox and also the long-time physician and a good friend of my partner. He met my steady gaze, “Are you ok?”

“Well, it’s hardly shocking,” I replied. “But if you hand me that box of tissues you keep eyeing, Rick, I’ll scream.” In the moment, it felt more important to me to put him at ease with an easy laugh than to accept any comfort myself. I got the laugh I’d intended, albeit a nervous one.

And the fact was that it wasn’t exactly a shock. A lifetime of caution, borne of witnessing the height of the plague in New York, had slipped into carelessness and a desire for something different, a new sensation enabled by a liberal dose of drugs and alcohol, hardly a recipe for caution or prudence. Just a few months before, my partner had gotten this same news from Rick, although his reaction to it was altogether different. He had been shocked, and while I was as supportive as I knew how to be, I had little tolerance for the self-pity he wallowed in. My thinking was that if he knew that he had been taking risks, as we both had, both together and separately, the news that he was HIV-positive could hardly be surprising. Upsetting, yes, of course, no one deserves HIV simply for expressing themselves sexually. But, on the other hand, as gay men of a certain age and experience, we knew all too well what might happen if we didn’t take precautions. So, yes, I was hardly shocked. To put it all in context, this was 2003; people were not dying at the rate they were in the eighties. What had been a possible death sentence just seven years earlier, was hardly that now but still, it was life-altering news.

I floated along on this revelation and the salient facts surrounding it for months. There were no immediate changes in my healthcare other than a battery of blood tests that soon leveled out to a visit to the doctor every three months to monitor my T cells and viral load. The treatment model of the time called for medication only after one’s T cells fell below 200 or, in the worst case scenario, the first opportunistic infection. That was the only thing that unnerved me. It seemed like a dangerous game of chicken. I even broke the news to my mother over the phone. Once I explained what my doctor had said, that I would live a normal life span, she was surprisingly calm. I had expected a total meltdown, so this was good news. My partner insisted on an available blood test that would roughly date my contracting the virus. Understandably, he wanted to be certain that he himself hadn’t infected me. That test showed that I was positive years before we were together which gave him much relief.

My T cells dropped slowly but steadily. When they approached 250, I’d had quite enough. This was a game I could not play any longer. I conveyed this to our doctor and friend and he agreed to prescribe HAART. I was more than a little relieved. I was ready. It was time.

Prescription in hand, I set out for the pharmacy. My relative calm and relief began to be replaced by something else entirely. At first, it was something close to shame. The man at the pharmacy would certainly know what these drugs were for. Would he be judging me? Never mind that it was a pharmacy in the heart of West Hollywood and that he had seen such prescriptions hundreds of times. I felt marked with a scarlet A. The only person that was judging me, however, was myself. Then there was the shock of seeing the actual price of my medication when he rang it up, albeit before my excellent insurance covered the total.

I took the white paper bag full of medication with me to my car. I had rarely taken anything other than an occasional antibiotic in my life. It’s hard to describe how I felt other than to say I was in some kind of shock. Now, doctors prescribe medication immediately upon diagnosis; there isn’t much time to get used to the idea. The changes are immediate. But then, months after I got the news, it was finally hitting me—I would be reliant on two medications to keep me alive for the rest of my life. Nothing would ever be the same. I sat behind the wheel of my SUV in the parking lot and wept. I rarely shed tears much less wept in such a dramatic fashion. Somehow, it seemed appropriate. Dramatic and overwrought? Yes, but still warranted. In the coming years, it wouldn’t be the last time.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.