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HIV's Longtime Survivors

MichaelSmithwickx560 HIVPLUSMAG

Michael Smithwick - left: Michael in 1992, three years after being infected with HIV; right: Michael now
Executive director of Maitri Compassionate Care in San Francisco


When did you first find out you were HIV-positive?  
In 1979, while living in Greenwich Village in New York City, my lymph glands became suddenly enlarged and I started to experience periodic, drenching night sweats. But aside from those relatively benign symptoms, it wasn’t until the HIV test became available in 1985 that I was officially diagnosed as positive.  

At the time, did you think you’d be able to live the life you’ve lived with HIV?
Well, in the mid-’80s an HIV-positive diagnosis was no big deal.  We were all told not to be worried, that it simply meant that we had been “exposed” to the virus, not that we would necessarily become ill. It wasn’t until later—after the passage of time and many more deaths—that it was determined that most positives would eventually develop AIDS if the virus were left untreated. At that point, I certainly didn’t think I’d live a full life. In fact, I recall praying that I’d live long enough to see my infant goddaughter walk and talk. She’s now 23.
 
Do you have a partner?
I do have a partner who is also HIV-positive. We’ve been together going on 20 years.

What has been the biggest surprise about having HIV?
That, aside from the health concerns, there are some hidden blessings.  Knowing my HIV status, and realizing that there were no guarantees about my long-term health, allowed me to be much more open about my life with others. I told all my family, friends, and even casual acquaintances of my HIV status back in the ’80s. Being so open allowed me to rise above the stigma and shame that seemed to be pervasive at the time. It liberated me actually, and allowed me to appreciate each and every day of life much more fully than I would have otherwise. Life is such a gift that too many people take for granted.

Do you worry about getting older with HIV?  
I don’t. Having just turned 56, I realize that people with long-term HIV are at higher risk for cancers and organ dysfunction at a younger age than the general population. But worry is such a negative emotion, both mentally and physically. I prefer to do all that I can to improve my chances for continued good health and then focus my energies on the present rather than fearing the future. When I do consider the future, it is with optimism and curiosity.

So many gay and bi men died of AIDS complications in the ’80s and ’90s. How did that impact you?
I lived through the ’80s and ’90s in San Francisco’s Castro District. So, yes, I saw many friends, neighbors, and acquaintances sicken and die. It all happened so quickly and there seemed to be no end in sight. My own HIV-positive status really didn’t alter the experience of observing the epidemic take its horrible toll. Like others, I got angry at the lack of government action, and tried to help in any way I could, and grieved for the many precious lives lost way too early.

What don’t people realize about HIV?
That it is not over! Too many people now think of HIV as an unfortunate condition that simply requires popping a few antiviral pills each morning.  We must continue to push for a vaccine for those who are not yet infected and a cure for those who are. Until then, let’s not pretend that AIDS is “fixed.”

Find out about the Maitri Compassionate Care in San Francisco at MaitriSF.org

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