When someone tells you you’re going to die, it’s normal to have a few questions. Depending on the context, these might include “how?” and “why?”, but most importantly, “when?”
On the day that I got my HIV diagnosis, Chris, my doctor never said I was going to die — but that’s what I heard. He said “This was a positive test.” It’s an odd choice of words, a bit clumsy and scientific, but of course medically precise. The diagnosis had to be confirmed with a second test, and backed up by a T-cell count. There was the possibility that the second test would show the first to be false, but he and I both knew that wasn’t really going to happen. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he said.
The test was positive, and so was I.
In my head, “This was a positive test” became “You’re going to die.” I wanted to know what all people given this news want to know: when?
“How long have I got?” The words came out of my mouth like a line from a bad TV movie. Chris looked at me with sad eyes.
“We don’t know. Some people do better than others, but without treatment I think you would have between one and three years before you were very seriously ill. There is a treatment available — it’s called AZT — and with that you would probably double that, but better treatments are being worked on and new ones could come along in the future.
“You shouldn’t worry: you can expect to have another five to ten years with a bit of luck. And in that time, who knows — treatments might improve. Who knows? You could live for another 20 years.”
I knew he was trying to be upbeat, stretching the story as far as possible to make me feel better. But no-one lived that long with HIV, not in those days. I walked out of the surgery with a prescription for AZT and started taking it the same day.
That was twenty years ago, today. The 6th of August, 1991, when I was 27 years old and going to die.
I posted another story about the day of my diagnosis a few years ago: Hiroshima Day.