My Impossible Dream

By David Patient

In 1983, on my twenty-second birthday, I was diagnosed with what would become known as AIDS.

I thought I had glandular fever or a flu that kept coming back. But when a friend who had similar symptoms died very quickly, I had my T-cells checked. T-cells are a type of white blood cells that are essential for a healthy immune system. My T-cell count was 364. (My blood sample was saved. It was tested later, and it was found to be HIV-positive.)

My doctor gave me six months to live. Back then, no one really understood the disease. They called it Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome: GRIDS. Some called it the Gay Cancer. They didn’t have a test for it like they have now for HIV. All they knew was that this disease that seemed to affect only gay men was characterized by a severely depressed immune system.

My life – what was left of it – sucked.

Four months after I learned I was sick, I attempted suicide. Then I learned to hope.

And often, hope is all we have left. I’ve been practicing hope ever since, along with eating nutrient-dense foods, maintaining outstanding healthful habits like exercise, helping other people, and renewing daily a relentless commitment to maintaining a positive mental attitude.

I might be called a “long-term non-progressor” in the AIDS lingo. Mine is one of the few cases where my immune decline was actually reversed, before there was medication. This was unusual for the time. (Fortunately, this reversal is common in those who take antiretroviral medicines.)

I found a way to get better. I found a lifetime of reasons to hope. These reasons make up my life’s work, which is giving hope and healthful practices to countless others who believe that a HIV-positive status is a death sentence.

I work with people who live in areas struck by abject poverty. They live with violence on a daily basis. Inequities abound. Their young people cannot find work. The men sit around and drink. And too many of them are HIV-positive.

Talk about a reason to lose hope.

But I don’t let them. This is what I tell them:

I exist. I’ve lived with AIDS for more than thirty years. I have lived a phenomenal life. Every morning I wake up with hope. If you are HIV-positive, don’t tell me you don’t have hope.

Let me tell you about a man I met a few years back.

My partner, Neil Orr, and I travel around Africa teaching people what it looks like to live – not die – with HIV.

Sure, we teach them good health practices. For example, every person can benefit from eating a balanced diet, understanding how to keep their immune system strong, coping with stress, preventing common illnesses with simple actions such as washing your hands with soap, growing vegetables at all times of the year, and so forth.

But true health means feeling alive; it’s not just the absence of illness.

We are teaching people how to empower themselves. We teach them to look forward to tomorrow, to plan to raise their children to adulthood, to make plans to build that house they dream of, to start that business that will support their family, to farm more than a tiny garden plot. We teach them how to make the world a little better by making a little bit of a difference in their own lives.

In 2002, Neil and I were asked to work with members of the Maasai tribe in East Africa who were becoming infected with a number of illnesses, including HIV. Their people were dying, and they were losing the indigenous knowledge that was vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem that would support them.

They had to cross the Serengeti to reach the conference, which was scheduled to run for ten days. The sponsors of the training provided transportation for each of the participants. Pickup locations were arranged for all those coming.

On the fourth morning of the conference, Neil and I were standing on the stoep, relishing the magnificent veld that is East Africa. In the distance, we could make out elephants, giraffe, zebra, and other wildlife that inhabit this extraordinary portion of the planet. We were chatting with two prominent supporters of the conference. Kenneth Kaunda was the former president of Zambia. His son, Wazi, is a medical doctor. They were attending the conference to consider it for a national health campaign for Zambia.

As we were talking, we noticed a man bicycling up the long S-shaped drive that approached the conference center. As the man drew closer, his white hair revealed his age. He was pumping the pedals with difficulty and wobbling on the bicycle. We assumed he was drunk. It was hard to believe he could manage to travel another meter, much less the many that remained for him to reach the center. But he did.

We then realized that something was wrong. We ran to meet him. The elderly African man was flat-out exhausted. He dropped his bicycle and fell, delirious, into the arms of Kenneth Kaunda. A quick exam revealed that he was severely dehydrated. And a check of the rolls showed that he had been expected at the conference three days earlier.

He had missed his ride.

He had missed the prearranged transportation because the river he was required to cross was flooded. Never mind; he knew another route. But this crossing required a seven-hour detour on his bicycle. He rode like hell to make the safer crossing. As he scrambled up the opposite bank of the swollen river, he saw the last vehicle driving off.

This man, the patriarch of his small East African community, set out for the conference on his bicycle. He had no water. He had no food. He had no camping gear. Mind you, if you are unfamiliar with the Serengeti, you may not know that this ecosystem set between Kenya and Tanzania is home to some of the continent’s fiercest – and hungriest – wildlife. It is renowned for its large lion population, making it a truly dangerous place to pitch a tent for the night. Nevertheless, each night for three nights, exhausted, our patriarch climbed with his bicycle into a tree to attempt a not-so-very-restful sleep. Each morning, he set out again. He rode for three days, sunrise to sunset, traveling some sixteen hours each day.

“Why did you take that risk?” asked an incredulous Kenneth Kaunda. “How could you possibly consider crossing that dangerous desert savanna?”

“Because,” the man answered, “the people in my village are dying. We need this information.”

This, my friend, is the soul of Africa. This is the spirit of Africa. This man literally was willing to risk his life to acquire the knowledge that could save his people.

This man had hope.

You will learn the fate of this man’s village in this book. You will learn how Neil and I have been able to share with him and countless others a reason to hope. You will learn how the magnificent, compassionate, respectful, deeply loving people of this incredible continent are learning that HIV is no longer a death sentence. They are coming together to become healthy, to live vibrant lives of contribution, to support their elders, to educate their children, to teach their daughters to run successful businesses, and more.

I’ve been living with HIV since 1983. It’s not supposed to be possible. The belief used to be that life couldn’t be good if you are HIV-positive. But that belief is wrong, and I preach that good news daily.

This has been my life’s work. Giving hope and health to others has given so much to me. I hope the stories I share with you will inspire you to hope, too.

Thank you for your interest in these stories of the brave, compassionate people of Africa who have done so much with so little. Perhaps these stories might even inspire you to give of yourself – even just a little bit. Perhaps even just a few of you will make giving hope and health to others your life’s work as well.

From Make a Plan: Possibility and Empowerment in a Time of AIDS
By David Patient with Donna Mosher