The Fight Continues
After 30 years of dealing with HIV and AIDS, Delaware has a long way to go in preventing the disease.
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Peter Houle does not look like a combat veteran. At first glance he seems to be someone who should be comfortable in his middle age, enjoying the height of his career, checking on his retirement fund and perhaps playing a few rounds of golf.
But Houle’s veteran status doesn’t allow him to rest. He knows the fight—his fight—still rages.
This 50-something, a former teacher, now the executive director of the Delaware HIV Consortium, has seen his share of tragedy during the 30-year battle against HIV and AIDS. It is with a calmness gained over decades that he tells the story of a friend who bears the infamous distinction of becoming the 12th officially confirmed AIDS death in Los Angeles when the disease emerged in the early 1980s.
The acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which reads like second nature to us now, had barely been introduced then. Terms such as “gay cancer” and gay-related immuno deficiency (GRID) still lingered. Those who were infected succumbed almost immediately, their immune systems shattered. Doctors had no idea how to treat the condition or handle its startling effects. Houle, upon paying a last visit to his friend, was required to wear a full-body containment suit into the hospital room.
“When I look back on it, it’s just remarkable,” Houle says. “I had a list that they gave me in 1982: Do not use the same dishes. Do not use the same cup. Any surface was to be bleached. Don’t wear their clothes. Don’t touch. Always wear a mask. And I remember flying back from L.A. and reading the New York Times, and there was an item in the left-hand column saying, ‘Gay disease hits New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.’”
Around the same time, Dr. Susan Szabo was beginning her medical residency in New York City. She came face to face with the tragedy of AIDS just as it was unveiling itself to the medical community. Now medical director for the Christiana Care HIV Community Program, which runs HIV/AIDS clinics throughout Delaware, she recalls a sense of professional paralysis among confounded doctors.
Today such images seem like ancient history. While HIV and AIDS have firmly taken root in the popular consciousness over the past 30 years, the images that frightened so many have disappeared from the front pages and the news broadcasts. They’ve been
replaced with fit, attractive actors from a road company of “Rent” pausing in the musical’s narrative to pop a dose of AZT.
But for Houle, it’s that nonchalance about what HIV has done that keeps him working to remind people in Delaware that the danger hasn’t gone away. It has only changed.
Page 2: The Fight Continues, continues...