Nelson Vergel - left: Nelson and his partner Calvin in 1987, the year he was diagnosed with HIV; right: Nelson now
Founding director of Program for Wellness Restoration in Houston (PowerUSA.org)
When did you first find out you were HIV positive?
In 1986. I most probably got infected in 1981, since I had all the symptoms of infection then.
At the time, did you think you’d be able to live the life you’ve lived with HIV?
Not at all. Everyone was dying around me and I felt like I was in a war zone. I was waiting for the next bomb to fall on me.
What has been the biggest surprise about having HIV?
That not only I can live healthy but I can be 100% out about my status with the work I do in the community. HIV gave me purpose to help others.
Do you worry about getting older with HIV?
Yes. In a way, I never got mentally prepared to get older since I thought I was going to die before I was 30. At 53, I feel and look relatively OK for having had HIV for 27 years and been exposed to the nasty older HIV drugs. But I worry about heart disease, fatigue, cognitive loss, and not living fully in the present. When I was told I was poz, my goal was to remain healthy so that I did not have to depend on anyone—I was a recent immigrant and alone in the U.S. I have the same goal as I get older.
So many gay and bi men died of AIDS complications in the ’80s and ’90s. How did that impact you?
I helped around 24 of my friends and three lovers die. After a while, I stopped grieving and became very “transactional” when someone died. I was the one who took care of funeral details while everyone else seemed to be falling apart. I guess I wouldn’t let myself grieve to protect myself from becoming depressed and sick.
What don’t people realize about HIV?
After 31 years, people forget that HIV still kills and that it has complications. They forget that HIV-positive people face stigma, and have a hard time dating and finding partners that do not freak out about HIV.
Tell us more about your work.
I am the founding director of Program for Wellness Restoration, a 17-year-old nonprofit in Houston that educates HIV-positive people about best ways to stay healthy. I am also a treatment activist in the areas of salvage therapy and cure research. I am a lecturer, an expert at TheBody.com, and author of books. My friends joke that I all I do is “talk shop” about HIV. I think HIV gives us an opportunity to face our fears of death and sickness, and many of us have been able to reinvent ourselves after this terrible diagnosis. I remind newly diagnosed people that HIV is not the end of the world, but it is also no picnic. Staying educated is key to growing strong with HIV.
To read up on the Program for Wellness Restoration, go to PowerUSA.org