People living with AIDS can do things to maintain their health.
By Kelly McMann
If you are living with HIV/AIDS, there are things you can do to help yourself stay healthy. I’ve seen with my own eyes the impact lifestyle choices can have upon HIV disease progression. While they are anecdotal and not scientific, my observations focus on two very close friends (both gay men who were infected through sex) and the ways in which their behaviors and attitudes influenced their health.
First, let’s take a look at Robert.
Robert was most likely infected in 1981 or earlier. Considering what a cute, young thing he was and how often he frequented the bath houses in those days, I’m absolutely sure he was exposed to HIV many times, beginning very early in the epidemic. But I digress.
In the mid ’80s, Robert began to experience some unusual illnesses, like Bell’s palsy, which paralyzes one side of the face. Despite his series of weird illnesses, Robert did not test for HIV until 1987 when he went to the doctor about a small “blood blister” on his face that wouldn’t go away. Of course, the test came back positive, indicating Robert was infected with HIV. And it wasn’t a blood blister on his face. It was a Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) lesion, an AIDS-indicating cancer. So by the time Robert took the HIV test, he had already progressed from being HIV positive to having AIDS.
Treatment for HIV was still in its infancy in 1987, and Robert did not have a lot of confidence in AZT. So he opted not to take any sort of treatment. While that decision did not help him, what really hurt him was his continued heavy use of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs; his stressful, go-go-go lifestyle that did not afford him adequate time for sleep or exercise; and his lack of proper nutrition. Also, it did not help that he had been co-infected with hepatitis and a couple of sexually transmitted infections.
My dear, sweet, mischievous friend Robert died on December 4, 1990, at the age of 29. I still miss him very much, and I often wish he could have held on until the advent of protease inhibitors and other improved treatment protocols. However, when I look at how he lived, I can’t say I’m surprised that he succumbed.
Now let’s examine George (I’m sure he’d like that!) and his lifestyle. George tested positive for HIV around the same time that Robert received his AIDS diagnosis. Unlike Robert, George decided to seek medical treatment and change his behaviors right away. For example, he cut back on the partying, he made sure he ate three healthy meals per day, got eight hours of sleep each night, and he took his medication exactly as prescribed. George even realized the connection between stress and the health of the immune system, so he got into Buddhism because the chanting and spiritual peace helped him better manage stress.
So here it is, 2007, and I’m happy to report that my wonderful friend George is alive and well and living a full life—20 years into his infection with HIV! And that’s no surprise. He takes care of himself, he has a great, positive attitude, and he occupies himself with people, things, and activities that make him happy. His healthful lifestyle is an example for us all to follow, but especially for persons living with HIV/AIDS.
What else can people with HIV/AIDS do to ensure their continued good health? First thing, I would recommend they get themselves to the Center for AIDS Hope and Remembrance Project (CFA) at 1407 Hawthorne. We in Houston are very lucky to have CFA, because they house, in an unassuming-looking building in Montrose, the largest repository of HIV treatment information in the Southwest.
CFA also produces valuable educational materials, such as 25 Things You Need to Know If You Are HIV+. This brochure includes a variety of tips to help persons with HIV stay healthy. While I won’t cover all 25 suggestions in this column, I’ll hit some of the high points:
#25. Do not eat raw meat, raw fish, or raw eggs. These foods can make you sick.
#23. If you’ve never had Hepatitis A or B, ask your doctor about getting vaccinated against them.
#22. Regular dental care is crucial. See a dentist twice a year. The first signs that your HIV infection is getting worse often appear in the mouth.
#20. It’s important to avoid activation of the immune system. Treat any non-HIV illnesses you experience as soon as possible. These illnesses activate the immune system.
#10. Never take a regimen of only one HIV medication. Most of the time it takes three or more medications to suppress HIV. (But remember, sometimes a pill has more than one medication in it, like Combivir or Trizivir.)
# 7. Take every dose of every medication on time every day. Skipping doses of your medication can be harmful, as it can lead to HIV developing resistance to the meds.
# 5. Eye care is important. If you experience “floaters” or any changes in vision call your doctor immediately. Some conditions left untreated can cause blindness.
# 1. Choose a doctor with experience in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The more experience, the better. This is the most important decision you can make.
For more information, contact the Center for AIDS Hope and Remembrance Project Center For AIDS (713/527-8219, www.centerforaids.org).
Kelly McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked its 25th year of service (“A Caring Milestone,” February 2007). Read a profile of McCann (“Still in the Fight”) in our March 2006 issue.