Meet Jeff

meet jeff

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An AIDS related illness nearly killed me 13 years ago. They gave me 24 HOURS to live. That's what the doctors told my parents when I was rushed the emergency room. They urged my family to fly in from Florida to New York to come say their goodbyes. It was so surreal, considering exactly one week earlier I had brought my ex-boyfriend Stephen to the same emergency room, where he died 12 hours later. So, yeah, lots of thoughts were going through my head, though most of them jumbled.

My t-cells were well below 46, a far cry from the 200-plus they deemed livable, and my viral load was over one million copies of HIV, as opposed to the undetectable it is today. I also had staph and pneumonia, a consequence of a failing immune system. Little did the doctors know, I like a challenge. They said I wouldn't pull through, and all I could think was, "challenge accepted!"
Alright, maybe those weren’t my exact words. I think they were more like, "aafjal grrtgvftg re agajl;jf;afd." But, I do remember grabbing a nurse's wrist at one point and whispering, "I don't want to die. Please don't let me die."

And here I am, some 4,749 days later, newly 50 years old, with more gray hairs, a kick-ass immune system and an undetectable viral load. There's not a lot I remember about those 17 days in the hospital. I'm not even sure how I survived it without a cell phone or Facebook. I remember my parents being amazing and loving, and by my side. My brother flew in. Jayson came by every day with real food. Some days I wonder why me? Why was I spared? I could spend all day on questions like that. But rather than dwell on it, I chose to focus on gratitude for the gift of a second chance — or in my case, probably a tenth one. So, I decided to live... not just live for me, but in honor my friends who didn’t get that chance. Stephen. Joey. Andrew. Carlos. Keith, and all my friends who had died from AIDS, or died too young.

Okay. I admit, it may have taken me another year or two to have that epiphany. Still, it’s significance was never lost. Thanks to my parents, i I grew up knowing that I had a voice to enact change. As a kid it was around my Jewish heritage. As a teen, and in my early adulthood, it was as an out and proud gay person, and as an AIDS activist and ally. And, since 2001, it’s also been as an out HIV positive, gay man trying to do his part to end HIV hate, ignorance and stigma, and show there is no shame being positive.

We’ve come so far. People testing HIV positive today have medication that will keep them healthy, possibly for the rest of their lives. But AIDS isn't going anywhere for a while, and a cure is likely far off. Still we are making progress. I refuse to be held hostage by it or be a victim. Defeat is not an option. Ignorance can not prevail. And, I remain grateful that as long as I wake up on this side of the grass, it’s a good day, as my father would say. With that, I get another chance to do good and make a difference.

Jeffrey Newham

New York, NY