by Ruby Comer
Andrew Thien Vo
My ears perk up. Across the crowded living room I hear “butt wipes” and “Columbus (Ohio)” in the same sentence! It hit me right between the eyes.
Here at a private party in a Victorian house in the Castro area of The Golden City, I’m celebrating the powerful work of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF). Mind you, “butt wipes” are not often publicly discussed! Okay? I plow through the crowd, parting the ways, like Moses parting the Red Sea, and stride toward the voice that has spoken these words.
I come upon Dr. Andrew Thien Vo, thirty-one, a pediatric dentist, who’s talking to several people about his pedaling in the AIDS Life/Cycle 2018, and about his upcoming move to Columbus——Ms. Ruby’s hometown——to be with his partner, Marcus. Now Columbus is lovely and all that, but why would someone move from sunny Huntington Beach, California to the Midwest?! (I’m happy to be from there, but this broad is staying in the Golden State.)
I learn that Andrew will be doing a two-year residency at Ohio State University (OSU), my ol’ alma mater, and also at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. He’s earning a Master’s degree in Dental Sciences, as well as his certificate to specialize in Pediatric Dentistry.
While attending dental school at the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Vo took
science classes which afforded him the opportunity to learn more about the epidemic. He found the subject stimulating and it motivated him to join AIDS Life/Cycle (ALC) 2015. Andrew had never known anyone with HIV until his first ride. For the next three years——that’s a total of four ALCs——Dr. Vo participated!
Vo is also a captain in the U.S. Army. In 2018 he rode in ALC as co-captain of Team Outserve, twenty-four military people from nearly every branch, including Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines!
Vo’s altruism also extends to volunteering his dental skills, and to creating a Care-A-Thon for the University of California Irvine Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The six-hour event dance marathon began in 2007. Last year it raised $100,000 in support of stem cell research to find a cure for chronic lung disease in premature babies. Andrew has also served on mission trips to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Terra Bella.
Unfortunately, due to pressing engagements on my end, and his move to the Buckeye State, we didn’t end up meeting until after he was settled in the Short North section of Columbus, near OSU. While I was visiting family for the Christmas holidays, Andrew and I met up at Mirror Lake (actually a pond) on campus. As I sit here, memories swirl in my head, as light snowflakes dust me.
By now you should be saying to yourself, “When is Ruby going to reveal what she found out about butt wipes?!” Hold on cowboys and cowgirls, it’s a’comin’.
Ruby Comer: Oh, Andrew, it’s not only a treat to be sitting here with you, but where many moons ago a younger Ruby carried her books off to class. [He smiles and his dream dental choppers gleam. I’m jealous.] So please tell me again about the butt wipes and how they saved you on the AIDS Life/Cycles.
Andrew Thien Vo: [He releases hardy chuckles.] Well, as I told you when we met in San Francisco——buy butt wipes! 545 miles can make for a pretty tender tush. Soap might be in short supply at some pit stops, too. A small packet of wipes can do double duty to keep your heinie and your hands clean. Take butt wipes! [His tone resembles a military command.]
[I cup my hands to my mouth to make a bullhorn and shout out into the quad.] And take that from a four-time rider! I love it that you are upfront and honest, Andrew. Tell me about the ride.
I learned more than I could have ever imagined. I met such incredible people throughout the ride who educated me in many ways. At one point, the ride empowered me to come out and inspire others in the military to lead a life free from discrimination and stigmatization.
Bravo. [Andrew lifts the collar on his retro-looking grey wool tweed overcoat.) How did you become a Captain in the Army?
I was offered the Health Professional Scholarship Program while in dental school. After graduating dental school, I was promoted to Captain and served for the Dental Corps in the United States Army. In June 2019, I finished my service obligation and currently serve as a Captain for the United States Reserves, Dental Corps, where I will continue to give back to the soldiers in the United States Army.
I’m so in awe. [I take a beat.] What kept you returning to ALC?
I continued to participate in AIDS Life/Cycle because of the love bubble. [I nod knowingly] Everyone on the ride is riding for a certain cause. Everyone is embraced with so much love, acceptance, and the fight for a greater good. I have met some of my best friends through ALC and it’s an experience for which I am extremely thankful.
I keep hearing this from riders. [I’m a bit choked up.] What were some challenges during the ride?
I think the most challenging experience is to bike those 545 miles. However, with the support of everyone around me…I did it!
Kudos, kiddo! Tell one story about one ride that happened—during the ride.
It was one evening when they asked the group who was [living with] HIV. My friend, who was always ashamed of contracting HIV and kept it under the rug, stood up in front of everyone and admitted he was positive. That night, he showed the world that HIV does not define him. I will always remember how proud of him I was for what he did.
Inspirational. I get chills. How has the ride changed you as a person?
The ride has made me to be a more accepting person, someone that looks at the whole picture. I became an educator, which includes breaking the stigma surrounding HIV.
Yabbo Dabba Do! [A couple of bikers speed by, one of them nearly skidding on the snowy pathway.] Whew, that was a close one. When did you take your first HIV test, Andrew?
I had to do my first HIV test before dental school, which was at age twenty-two. I had anxiety because I had had unprotected sex with my previous boyfriends. Every time I took it, I had anxiety.
I think most of us do, Andrew. How did you and Marcus meet?
We met on Grindr! Can you believe it? ….and he’s a pediatric dentist too! I got so lucky.
He is?! Wow-EE. How did you guys broach the topic of STIs?
Before I met Marcus, I was on Truvada [for PrEP]. He was a thirty-year-old virgin when I met him. Score! [We both laugh and Andrew does a high five.] Neither of us had ever contracted an STI. We are in a closed trusting relationship—upfront and honest with one another. But it was a big struggle for me to go off PrEP.
Unfortunately, HIV infection is still on the upswing in certain communities. What can we do better to reach out to them?
I think everyone should learn about PrEP, especially if you are single! I think we should educate medical professionals that taking Truvada does not mean that you have HIV, but is a prophylaxis medication to help prevent HIV. Being in the medical field, I find it shocking that many [doctors] are still unaware of PrEP.
Isn’t that true and. . . [Andrew continues].
I think not sharing past medical history or diagnoses is dangerous. I am a pediatric dentist and a lot of parents fail to disclose all medical conditions because they don’t think it matters since I am just a dentist. There are many contraindications to treatment like patients on bisphosphonates who should not have extractions; also, those with genetic/cardiac disease need prophylaxis medication/clearance prior to treatment, and so on. [He sits upright and takes a breath.] If we break the HIV stigma, people will not feel ashamed of the diagnosis. Talking about it is the key.
True, true. What prompts you to volunteer?
The value to help others when they are in need makes …my… life.. . [he inhales, while his expressive chestnut-colored eyes moisten]… whole. I don’t care how much money I make or the materialistic things in life. I care for my family, friends, and the community.
That’s admirable my dear. Leave us with a thought, before we become snowmen. [The snow is increasingly heavy.]
HIV does not define you. You …define… you. If someone judges you for having HIV, it’s their misunderstanding. Keep living, be yourself, and… [Andrew exhales] love yourself! [With that, he playfully throws a snowball my way.].
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].