A lot’s happened since my last column here, three months ago. Let’s see...I graduated from physical therapy for a torn ankle ligament. I got hooked on the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica. And, oh, I almost died. I don’t mean to sound flip. But for many long-term HIV survivors, like me, near-death experiences can become so common, they begin to seem like afterthoughts, like something you’d yap about at the Slurpee machine. Also, I get tired of telling people that, yep, I’ve had yet another fascinating health crisis. I figure everyone must be so totally over my latest trip back from the brink. (I promise I’m a whole lot more fun than this sounds.)
But I’ve thought a bit about my latest adventure, and I’ve decided that I do want to talk about it. Because it says a lot about how far AIDS treatment has progressed for those of us fortunate enough to access it. And about how I relate to my friends as a positive—and occasionally very sick—man.
So, OK, picture it: It’s the week before Christmas, and I come down with what seems like an ordinary cold. Before I know it, I have pneumonia and am wheezing away at St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan, hooked to an ICU respirator. I was sedated for a couple of days, thank God, because while I was under, I had respiratory failure and almost entered the past tense.
I’d been here before, also for pneumonia, in 1995. One of the big differences this time was the quality of the antibiotics. Now, of course, they’re like designer drugs. In 1995, when they gave me Pentamidine for the lung infection, it felt like gasoline flowing through my IV. These days, everyone in the hospital seems much more knowledgeable about AIDS.
Before, my symptoms had been seen but not that often. Now the nurses weren’t afraid of catching my virus.
In ’95, they made me have a bronchoscopy, during which I inhaled my own sputum, causing bacterial pneumonia as well as CMV pneumonia. So I was terrified that it would happen again. This time, the head of the ICU had a one-on-one talk with me. He held my hand as he assured me that I’d get through the procedure unscathed. He wasn’t wearing rubber gloves, a gesture that helped as much as any medication.
My attitudes have changed, too. I’ve become so much more confident in saying what feels right for me. For instance, when I was in the hospital in ’95, I had a phone by my bed. At first, I welcomed my friends’ worried calls. But soon, the ringing wouldn’t stop. Every time a caller asked in a sad, scared voice, “Joe? How are you feeling?” It began to sound like nails scraping my hospital chart. One day, when I simply couldn’t take the ringing any longer, I unplugged it.
Fifteen minutes later, a nurse rushed in. She had received a hysterical call from a friend who was convinced I was coding. The nurse made me plug my phone back in, and despite my deep gratitude for my friends’ vigilance, I felt violated by her command.
This time—ha-ha—I didn’t turn it on! I couldn’t talk much anyway, because I didn’t have any air in my lungs. Some of my friends were furious that I hadn’t told them. I realize that it’s frustrating not to be able to help someone you love. But when they trust me to tell them on my own terms, they help me more than they can know.
I love that, ironically, my nightmare before Christmas has made me more upbeat about my long-term future. To all my friends, I promise to call. But not tonight—Galactica’s on.