Cocktail Hours

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

As their relationship progressed and Henderson's viral load didn't, they decided to have a child. They consulted a doctor who said that with the HAART therapies now available, there was less than a 1 percent chance their baby would be HIV-positive. "Thirteen weeks after the fetus' organs develop, the woman begins treatment with a cocktail," Sloan says. "And when the baby is born, he or she gets AZT."

On December 8, 2000, Henderson gave birth to a healthy baby girl. But her husband, who was using again, tempered her joy. "My blindness may have heightened my other senses, but it didn't take much intuition to figure out that he was doing drugs," she says. "Not when the dope man came around looking for his money." She would have none of that around her children and told her husband to pack up and leave.

Stressed over her marriage, she let her health slide and stopped taking her medications. "When there's a lot of stuff on your mind, sometimes you don't feel like swallowing 40 pills a day," she says. Her viral load shot up 10,000, and her T-cell count dropped to 130. She felt fatigued, bone-weary and developed resistances to two medicines. Getting adherent with a new cocktail took some persuading, but she managed it with the help of The Kitchen Table, an HIV women's support group affiliated with the AIDS Resource Center. She talked freely to women in the same situation, women who had contracted the illness from working the streets or IV drug use or a husband in denial. "But I'm the only blind woman," Henderson says. "I think that gives the others strength."

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."

Rene Ryan became a founding member of the group in 1999 after she moved to Dallas. Through friends, she had met a "highly empathetic" HIV-negative man whom she would eventually marry. "Not many men would go into this with their eyes wide open," she says.

They understood it was more difficult for a woman through vaginal intercourse to transmit the virus to a man than the reverse. Nonetheless, she insisted he wear a condom, at least at first. It was his choice, however, to have unprotected sex, knowing that any virus he might contract could be a more virulent strain, replicating with her same drug resistances. Still they were cautious: He would get tested every six weeks, and they would have unprotected sex only if they knew her viral load was undetectable.

She didn't know if she could even get pregnant and felt conflicted when she finally did. She could never replace the child she lost, yet she wanted to be a mother again--desperately. She knew the risk of exposing her baby was negligible but grew concerned others might judge her: What business did an HIV-positive woman have getting pregnant when taxpayers were paying for her medications? Then again, she had lost a son, a husband, a brother, her own health to this epidemic. Wasn't she entitled to some happiness?

Ryan decided to continue her pregnancy and delivered a healthy baby girl. Four years later, she had a boy, who is also HIV-negative. "I never thought I would be a mother again, which alone brings me the greatest joy in the world."

Yet she can never forget the fragility of her existence, the worry that she could contract an opportunistic infection from a cold her child might catch, the angst that her latest cocktail might fail her or her immune system finally just might give out. "I feel like a frog jumping from one lily pad to another before it starts sinking," she says. "I stay as long as I can, but I'm not sure how many lily pads are left."

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