Cocktail Hours

The latest AIDS medications give life to the dying--but what kind of life?

But in 1992, being pregnant and HIV-positive felt totally isolating for a young African-American woman. "No one in the black community was talking about AIDS," Henderson says. "It was still considered a gay man's disease." Her family was supportive, but they lived in Dallas. If there were HIV support groups for women--black, Anglo or otherwise--she didn't know about them. There were no medications to protect her unborn child from exposure, and she wasn't allowed anything to keep her virus in check. The only comfort she received was from prayer, she says, which must have been enough. Her son was born HIV-negative.

Rene Ryan wasn't quite so fortunate. She learned her husband had infected her only after their newborn son had caught a cold in an Austin day-care center. It was apparent that his elderly pediatrician had misdiagnosed the illness, but few people had seen pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in a 3-month-old baby in 1989. Tests taken in the ICU, however, confirmed the baby had full-blown AIDS.

The Ryans were just a couple of white kids who had grown up together in a small Hill Country town, fallen in love after he went off to college and married too soon after deciding they just had to be together. Before marriage and monogamy, they were both young and promiscuous, which must have increased their risk of exposure. Now none of that mattered, not after the doctors told them their baby had only six months to live. "We were just hoping we could take him home to die," Rene says.

Melissa Grove, the executive director of Legacy Counseling Center, the largest provider of HIV counseling services in Dallas, says that "HIV puts a magnifying glass on every other problem you have, bringing out existing issues and adding another layer of stress to them."
Mark Graham
Melissa Grove, the executive director of Legacy Counseling Center, the largest provider of HIV counseling services in Dallas, says that "HIV puts a magnifying glass on every other problem you have, bringing out existing issues and adding another layer of stress to them."
Dr. Louis Sloan, a Dallas HIV specialist, says that approximately 30 percent of patients do not take their cocktails with the discipline that the medications and the disease require. "It will catch up with them," he says. "But you can't convince them that five years from now they might have a problem."
Mark Graham
Dr. Louis Sloan, a Dallas HIV specialist, says that approximately 30 percent of patients do not take their cocktails with the discipline that the medications and the disease require. "It will catch up with them," he says. "But you can't convince them that five years from now they might have a problem."

They had a glimmer of hope when their son was accepted in a Houston drug study, which tested AZT on children. Every two weeks for two years they would travel to Houston until the virus finally overwhelmed his body. "We got to take him home for an early Christmas," she says. "He was such a strong and brave little boy--happy right until the end."

The death of their son strained their marriage as they cycled between anger, counseling and cocaine. None of these helped them stay faithful to their AZT regimens, although she was better about taking care of his medical needs than her own. "It didn't help when I had side effects like diarrhea. I was running to the bathroom at work every five minutes, and I was trying to keep it a secret from my boss." She developed a strain resistant to her meds and was forced to switch regimens more than once.

Drugs and bitterness finally took their toll, and the couple decided to separate. She moved to Houston to be close to her brother, who was also dying of AIDS. Her husband grew worse, his illness progressing faster than hers. A year later, she got the phone call: He was in a hospital bed, comatose and dying. "I was there when he passed away. I loved that man for a third of my life, but we ran out of time to work things out."

Shalonda Henderson also took AZT, until she could hardly walk from the neuropathy it caused. The medications she took to prevent her from getting pneumonia made her face "blow up like I had been beaten up." In 1996, her doctor wanted to start her on protease inhibitors. She decided to wait until she and her son returned from Dallas. They would be spending Christmas with her family.

In Dallas, she developed a migraine so painful that she started seeing double. Rushed to Parkland hospital, she was diagnosed with cryptococcal meningitis, a fungus that lodged on her spinal cord and produced pressure on her brain. She slipped into a coma, and the doctors encouraged her mother to "pull the plug." Her mother insisted on waiting, and after 32 hours, Henderson opened her eyes. She was blind, other than being able to discern light from dark. Her T-cell count had dropped to two; she had virtually no immune system left. Her hair had fallen out, and her skin looked as though she had been burned beyond recognition. "Still, I was glad to be alive," she says.

Her doctors put her on a three-drug cocktail, two nukes and a protease inhibitor. One of the nukes caused her to have more neuropathy--bad muscle spasms and numbness in her feet--but her viral load and T-cell count both headed in the right direction. She and her son moved into her mother's house until 1998 when AIDS Services of Dallas found them an apartment at one of its HIV housing projects for the poor. AIDS Arms helped her with clothing; AIDS Interfaith helped her with transportation; AIDS Resource Center helped her with food; and Bryan's House helped her with child care. "I had case managers up the butt," she says.

AIDS Interfaith also ran the Daire Center, a place where HIV-positive adults eat lunch and chat, and where Henderson met her future husband. "We just started talking and became friends," she says. "He was positive through drug use and multiple partners. We exchanged phone numbers and later got married."

At first, the sex between them was safe; neither of them wanting to risk re-infecting the other. "It's not real common, but it can happen," Dr. Sloan says. "There are cases of patients whose virus is under control, and all of a sudden, there is a huge viral change that corresponds to the virus the partner has. One predominate virus will usually win out, but you may have to treat both."

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