Against the Odds/After the Diagnosis: One Man’s Story
A few weeks after my mother died a horrible death from an inoperable brain tumor, I got a phone call late at night from my friend Timmy who lived in San Francisco. I could tell he’d had a few drinks—which wasn’t unusual for him—but instead of being in his usual jovial mood, he was distraught.
“I have AIDS,” he blurted out, slurring his speech slightly. “And I thought about throwing myself off the Golden Gate Bridge.” He may have even told me he went down to the bridge but chickened out. I’m not sure. My mind and body went numb.
In 1988 a diagnosis of AIDS was still considered a death sentence.
I tried to talk him out of his suicide plan by telling him something I had learned while watching my mother die slowly over an eight-month period. “Don’t kill yourself now,” I said. “Right now you feel fine but there may come a day when you won’t. When you get to the point that you’re suffering and prolonging death, instead of prolonging life, let me know. And I’ll help you go.”
Timmy got medical help: the best available, as San Francisco General Hospital was on the cutting edge of treatment. But no one, not even his doctors, knew how good that treatment was at the time. The next year, my wife and another friend flew from Boston to San Francisco to help Timmy celebrate his 30th birthday. We all fully expected that that might be the last time we saw him alive, but it wasn’t.
Timmy lived another 12 years. And every year that went by amazed us. Another friend who also lived in San Francisco took it upon herself to watch over Timmy, since the rest of his family and friends lived back East. She went to a support group for people who had a friend or family member who was recently diagnosed with AIDS. And she told me once that just a few years after Timmy was diagnosed, every person in that support group had left the group because their friend or family member had died.
So why was Timmy doing so well? We joked that it was the booze that was keeping him alive. Sure enough, in 1999, on a four-day business trip to San Francisco, I went out with Timmy almost every night. We’d go to dinner and then out for a few drinks. Every bartender in the city welcomed him with a big hello—one even placed an ashtray near him so he could smoke, even though the city had recently passed a law against it. And on more than one occasion, I was the one that said I was tired and had to call it a night.
Timmy seemed happier and healthier—and more at peace with himself—than he did before his diagnosis. But in the ensuing years I learned that the AIDS medications he was taking to keep himself alive had terrible, chronic side effects that ripped apart his stomach. And he confided in me that sometimes he wouldn’t take them when people visited him or when he went home for a visit. During those times, he wanted to be his best and to enjoy life to its fullest.
He was playing a game of Russian Roulette with his medications, but it was for the sake of prolonging life, not prolonging death, and it made sense to me. Unfortunately, I think that’s what eventually caught up with him.