Alaskan survivor marks 30 years with HIV
As Alaskans observe World AIDS Day this week, a survivor of the disease reflected at length on more than 30 years living with it.
Don Johnson, now an openly gay man, drove 100 miles to attend a Friday event at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986.
"One of my biggest concerns at the time was that I am the custodial parent to my two daughters." Johnson said, "They were in high school and I was very concerned about delivering this news. It was hard enough for me to accept it, but it was really going to impact their lives being in high school."
Johnson's doctor at the time suggested he hold off on the news for a little longer.
"I had a forward-thinking doctor who advised me." Johnson said, "He said, 'You know, you're in good shape. I would hold off a little bit, these are formative years for them.'"
Johnson says he's glad he held off, but may have waited too long to break the news back then.
"It kind of blindsided me," Johnson said. "I got sick and ended up in the hospital and had to be rescued by my daughter. At the same time she gets to find out that, you know, gee, he has AIDS. He's had AIDS for a long time and never told us. So then I put in that uncomfortable position of bad daddy."
Johnson says he and his daughters are in a good place now and he is grateful to still be alive with the disease at the age of 70.
"It's like I never expected that this part of my life would even be there, much less as good as it is," Johnson said. "It's different now then it was 30 years ago. I was around 30 years ago with all the vigils and so forth were going on."
Johnson says living with HIV or AIDS in the 1980s was a death wish.
"I thought I was going to die and I was going to die shortly," Johnson said. "That's the way things were in 1986."
Johnson saw many people he met in various meetings in various cities die from the disease.
"When I lived in Houston, Texas, at one support group there were 177 people who died that year." Johnson said, "Their names were put on the quilt. It was support group organizations like AA and stuff comprised of mostly men, some women. We realized that the men are going away. The men are dead, they're sick they're dead."
Johnson says a big part of AIDS in the early years was HIV-related dementia, which left doctors dealing with some people unwilling to be helped.
"Someone who decides they really need to buy a new car -- you know, making really bad choices," Johnson said. "I sat with so many dying people and I now look at it as a real privilege. It's a real intimate moment to share with someone. Sometimes our lives are not always based on our good things but frequently, some pretty awful things. I wished it would have never happened. I wish it would all go away but I'm glad a survivor and glad I had the opportunity to drive my own car here."
Saturday's event at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium included a candlelight vigil and festivities afterward.
"It's not as much nostalgia now but the acuity of the situation has changed," Johnson said. "It's a treatable disease and thank God for that."
World AIDS Day started in 1988 and is held on Dec. 1 of every year. It is a day to spread awareness of HIV and fight to spread of the disease. It is also a day to remember those who have died from the disease.