January/February 2012: The month from Hell…

Quite Positive - This is my life after the test came back.

A bright light appeared in my life right after New Year’s weekend.

Tom — who lived in Oklahoma City — was completely different from any guy I had ever dated: he was religious, family-oriented, and best of all… my age! He lived a very laid-back, reserved lifestyle shockingly reminiscent of what my own life had once been. He was attractive, funny, and caring.

We would talk for hours about everything: important world issues, cooking, past experiences, hopes and dreams, and how much we liked each other.

After a few dates the first two weeks of January, we began dating… officially. I was happy. I felt a long-term relationship within my grasp, and I was ready to take it into my arms and never let go.

I was traveling from western Oklahoma to Oklahoma City every other day, splitting my time between visits with him and visits with my parents.

Still Sick

Tom and I kept dating despite my increasingly severe cold symptoms. Our connection was strong. Our time spent together was amazing. The sex was the best I ‘d ever had with anyone.

It was just a cold, I told him. It would go away. He was sniffling at the time, as well, so he thought nothing of it. The fact remains, however, that I had been sick for more than a month and was getting worse with each passing day. My fever ran in cycles, going from 97 degrees in the mornings to well over 100 by bedtime. I was coughing up phlegm. I was experiencing constant watery diarrhea.

I’m not a person who gets paranoid about his health or scares easily. One weekend in particular scared the Hell out of me, though. It was mid-January.

That Friday, Tom and I had eaten a nice dinner out and ended the evening with movies at his apartment before bed. There was sex, of course, but the overarching feel of the night had been very romantic and sweet.

The following day, however, Tom was scheduled to work and had family obligations afterward. After making plans to see him Sunday, I left his apartment early Saturday morning and drove to my parents’ house on the other side of town. I strutted into my parents’ home in northwest Oklahoma City around 8:30 A.M., said hello to my father, and poured myself a cup of coffee. I plopped onto their plush, overstuffed sofa, turned on the television, and sat my mug on the coffee table.

I remember very little about the next 10 hours. I spent much of it asleep, and can only remember freezing my ass off during the brief instances where I would wake up for a few moments.

I awoke about 6:30 P.M. that evening to my mother shaking me. I sat up, collected my thoughts, and looked at her. She informed me that I had been running fever, and shoved a thermometer in my mouth. My temperature was 102 degrees.

She begged me to go to the emergency room, and I wouldn’t do it. I wanted to see Tom so badly the next day that I just couldn’t bear the thought of canceling. My mother ran me a bath, and after a good soak I was feeling better. She gave me the only bottle of antibiotics she could find — a prescription of Bactrim — and I popped a pill.

I convinced myself that it had been a passing event and pressed forward with my plans for the weekend. I went to sleep early that night, waking up every couple hours in soaked sheets from the worsened version of the fever-induced night sweats I been experiencing for a month.

Sunday with Tom went on as we had planned. Dinner out, movies at his place, lots of talking, lots of sex, and a good night’s sleep.

The Nightmare Begins

I awoke early on Monday morning to begin my trip back to western Oklahoma for work. It was roughly a 2-hour drive from Tom’s place to my office. I arrived at 8:30 A.M. sharp and began my daily duties.

I felt okay that morning, but as the hours rolled by, my condition deteriorated. I was cold, I was coughing, and I had a splitting headache. I finished the day, stopping by the pharmacy on my way home to pick up some Sudafed. I spent the remainder of the day lying lifeless on my sofa beneath two blankets, dozing in and out of a sleep-like state. My body was limp and aching, but I managed to struggle to my feet about 10:30 P.M.

I walked into the bathroom and popped a thermometer into my mouth… 103.5 degrees. I ran a bath, soaked for a few minutes, dried off, and went to bed.

Another sleepless night! I would wake up every few hours, as I had just days before, dripping in sweat.

I awoke the next morning tired, but surprisingly asymptomatic. With growing concern for my condition, however, I checked my temperature during my morning bathroom routine.

My fever had broke! I was 96 degrees.

It was Tuesday, January 24, 2012.

I drove to work and went about my daily business. The day progressed exactly as it had the day before.

The hours rolled by, and my condition worsened. By 5:00 P.M., I was miserable.

I checked my temperature again immediately upon arriving at my apartment… 102 degrees. It was high, but not as high as the night before. I thought I was getting better. I popped a Bactrim and a Sudafed and went into the living room. I snuggled up on the sofa beneath the same two blankets that had warmed me day before.

This time, I just couldn’t stay warm. My body was shaking and my teeth were chattering. I texted my mother.

“I’m freezing,” I said.

A few moments later, she replied.

“You’re running fever. You need to get to the hospital.”

By then, I had also started to develop an increasingly severe sore throat.

I brushed off her concerns, informing her there was no reason to worry… but I knew something was wrong.

I was scared. As much as I wanted to get up and take my temperature, however, I could not get motivated. I was so cold that I couldn’t imagine leaving the warmth of my two blankets. My body ached so bad that I couldn’t imagine moving it. Yet, through forces that I cannot explain, I mustered the courage and energy to do it.

I skulked into the bathroom, removed the thermometer from my vanity drawer, and popped it into my mouth… 104.3.

It was time to get help.

No Diagnosis

The drive from my apartment to the hospital took only a few minutes, but it might as well have been hours. I turned the heater in my truck on full blast, but I was still cold. I was scared. I was upset. I was convinced that I had the flu, and would be missing God knows how much work as I recuperated.

Finally arriving at my local hospital in the tiny oil town I called home, I exited my pickup and walked into the emergency room. I texted Tom and my mother as I waited to be seen, informing each of them that I had decided to visit the E.R. I downplayed the situation to both of them, surmising that I would likely be diagnosed with whatever cold-of-the-month was going around and given a powerful shot to take care of it.

Soon, my wait was over and I found myself in an examination room. It was 8:30 P.M., and I guessed that I’d be out by eleven. My guess was wrong.

One hour passed. Two hours. Three. Nurses and physicians came in and out of the room, their puzzlement increasing as the time passed.

I was tested for every sickness under the sun. I gave so much blood, urine, and saliva to those people that night… you’d think I would’ve shriveled up and blew away!

Nothing was found. I was admitted to the hospital for observation and further testing shortly before Midnight.

I don’t remember much about the following three days. Fact is, my memory of the time spent at my local hospital is somewhat sporadic aside from a few facts and incidents. My sore throat had gotten much worse, to the point where it became hard to swallow. My fever was still over 100 degrees each time it was checked. I had a splitting headache. I still had diarrhea. I spent most of the time cold (chilling from the persistent fever), or sleeping.

The second day that I was in the hospital, however, I was visited by two Indian physicians who gave me a rundown of my condition.

In short, they still didn’t know what was going on. After a myriad of tests, the only thing they could tell me was that I did not have any of the illnesses that they had tested me for. I did not have a cold or random virus. I did not have the flu or strep throat. I didn’t have TB. I didn’t have Mononucleosis.

Most importantly, I had tested negative for HIV.

My heart sank, however, when one of the doctors added a simple, almost matter-of-fact statement atop what had already been said: “Your white blood cell count is next to nothing.”

I knew the gravity of that statement immediately. Although my HIV test had came back negative, something inside of me did not trust the result. I knew the facts. I was gay, and — although I never considered myself a hoe by any stretch of the imagination —  I had certainly slept with more than a couple guys in the past few years… and I hadn’t always used protection.

A constant hope began repeating itself in my mind at that point: “Anything but HIV. Anything but HIV.”

At the time, I was prepared to accept any other diagnosis: leukemia, cancer, Ebola virus. I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to end up with the stigma of being an HIV/AIDS patient.

It was the morning of day three that my physicians at the local hospital made a suggestion: they wanted to perform a bone marrow biopsy.

My parents were obviously concerned. They had traveled to western Oklahoma the night that I was admitted to the hospital, had stayed with me through it all, and were growing frustrated at the local hospital’s inability to provide me with a diagnosis.

Tom, with whom I had been texting and talking the entire time, was also concerned. He was making plans to come visit me in the hospital on his next day off.

Personally, I was relieved. They were now testing me for leukemia, which lessened my worries about a possible HIV diagnosis.

The only kink? Once the biopsy had been performed, the sample would have to be sent to Oklahoma City for testing. It would be at least an additional three-day wait for the results to come back.

OU Medical Center

At that point, one of the doctors offered a solution to speed things along. Rather than waiting in western Oklahoma for three days or more for results, he could simply transfer me to a hospital in Oklahoma City. The larger metropolitan hospitals had testing facilities on site, and would be able to give me a diagnosis or develop a further plan of action much quicker. My parents and I happily agreed.

I informed Tom, who was happy with the decision but increasingly worried about my condition.

I spent one further night at my local hospital, and was transferred to OU Medical Center the following morning.

My fears of receiving an HIV diagnosis subsided somewhat during this period.  I suppose I had just always been under the impression that HIV was easy to diagnose, and that any random hospital — regardless of size — would be able to recognize it. The fact that my small-town hospital was now transferring me to a larger facility comforted me in a way.

I arrived at OU Medical Center early that afternoon. I was still running fever, still had diarrhea, and my sore throat had worsened. After reviewing my records and speaking with my doctors from western Oklahoma, I was visited by a physician later that evening.

While she was still open to performing a bone marrow biopsy, she said, she wanted to do some additional blood work first. I grew uneasy at her seeming lack of confidence that the biopsy would reveal the truth of my condition.

I gave blood four times that day for various tests.

I was put on intravenous doses of Cipro (Ciproflaxin), saline, and other antibiotics that night. By the next morning, my fever had broke and would remain normal for the rest of my stay.

Acute HIV Infection - Body Rash

This is an example of an Acute HIV Rash that I found on Google Images. It's eerily similar to the one that I developed while in the the hospital.

Yet, as one symptom passed, others appeared in its place. I was developing a splotchy rash on my torso and the lymph nodes in my neck were beginning to swell. I was urinating and ejaculating blood. My sore throat worsened to the point that I was almost unable to swallow. My diarrhea continued.

On Saturday morning, a group of three doctors knocked at my door and entered my room. My father, who was visiting me at the time, was asked to leave.

Upon my dad’s exit from the room, the leader of the pack identified himself and his counterparts. I don’t remember their names, but I will never forget their association.

“We’re from the Oklahoma University Infectious Diseases Institute.”

The Waiting Game

I knew immediately why they were visiting me. A shocking calm and eery tingle flooded my body as I uttered a simple reply to his telling identification.

“Okay.”

The physician gave me a rundown of my condition and symptoms, and began to speak with a certain confidence and knowledge that had been absent from any of the physicians that had spoke with me before. The tension was building.

“You have tested negative twice for HIV — once at your local hospital and once here,” he began.

“We’re running a different type of test, however, and I am almost certain that it will come back positive. You’re exhibiting every symptom of Acute HIV Infection in a textbook manner.”

I don’t really know how to accurately describe how I felt as I listened to this young physician utter his speculative diagnosis. I was not shocked at the news, as I had already prepared myself for this possibility days earlier at my local hospital in western Oklahoma. Yet, I was still solemn. I realized that hope for an alternate diagnosis was slipping away. I didn’t cry. I didn’t freak out. I guess more than anything, I was in a trance-like state. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. My voice and reaction were cold as I ice, free of emotion.

My response was exactly the same as it had been when the physician had identified his group’s association.

“Okay.”

Based on the timing of my seroconversion and the progression of my infection, the doctor informed me, I had likely contracted HIV in October or November of 2011. A few moments of deep thought provided me with a source. It could only be one person.

From October 2011 until my hospitalization, I had only engaged in full unprotected sex with two people. I had not done anything sexual with Heath, the “Leave It To Beaver” boy that visited me for the weekend. But I had engaged in unprotected sex multiple times — on multiple occasions — with Andy, the ‘friend with benefits’ that I met the night Heath left my apartment. I had — of course — slept with Tom, but I was already sick when we started seeing each other. (See: Winter 2011/2012: My life before HIV infection…)

It had to have been Andy.

A lengthy question-and-answer session between the doctors and me soon ensued, and I was forced to lay all the intimate details of my personal life on the table. I could never possibly remember every question that the group of physicians asked me, but here are a few of the high points:

  • Are you gay?
  • Have you had unprotected sex in the past twelve months?
  • What was your sexual role?
  • Have you used intravenous drugs?

Talk about awkward! Talk about infuriating!

The questioning was so demeaning, and made me feel less than human. Of course I was not an intravenous drug user. Of course I was gay. Of course I had engaged in unprotected sex. But what the Hell? I had been single! I had simply been doing the exact same thing that millions of gay and straight guys do every single day without any damn problems.

Sure, I’d slept with a few guys, but I couldn’t even begin to count how many of my close personal friends had slept with double or triple the number of guys that I had. I wasn’t a hoe. I hadn’t slept with every random guy that looked twice at me. The people I had been with were — for the most part — people with whom I had been pursuing more serious relationships.

I was a hardworking, motivated professional in my industry. I didn’t drink, kept myself in shape, considered myself loyal and loving, and didn’t act like your typical sex-crazed queen. I wasn’t one of those fags that spent every free night at the gay bars getting plastered and hooking up. I didn’t fit the stereotype.

Why me?

As the questioning ended, the group of physicians asked me if I had any questions. I had only one.

“If I have HIV, why have I tested negative twice?”

One of the doctors explained it clearly to me. I had been in the early stages of a process called seroconversion, he said, during which the HIV virus is replicating itself quickly in my body and my immune system is working to produce antibodies.

HIV tests, he explained, do not test for the virus itself… they test for the antibodies produced in response to the virus being present. At the times I had been tested, my body had likely not yet produced enough antibodies to spark a positive test result. In short, the virus had probably been in the process of activating itself right as I had been admitted to the hospital.

As my visit with the Infectious Diseases doctors ended, I was warned against jumping to conclusions too early. Right now, the lead physician said, the diagnosis was just an educated theory. I had yet to officially test positive, and the results of my next test would not be back until Monday. We would not know anything definitive until then, and all I could do was wait.

My father was called back in as the physicians left.

I had determined several days prior that if I were to be diagnosed with HIV, I would be telling nobody — not even my parents. As I lay in my hospital bed, I watched as my father strolled back into the room from the hallway. He said nothing, but I identified a concerned look on his face. He knew something serious was going on.

The funny thing about a decision — whether it be related to health or something else — is that it’s easier to make a decision than it is to execute one. I might have been dead-set on keeping my diagnosis private days earlier, but that idea was based on hypothetical circumstances. When I was actually facing the reality of a terminal diagnosis, emotion and the desire for support took over and my plan for maintaining privacy flew out the window.

He sat down in a chair in the corner of the room. I didn’t even give him a chance to speak.

“So…” I began in an awkward yet surprisingly upbeat tone, “They think that I have HIV.”

“Are they sure?” he quizzed.

I informed him that although we were waiting on confirmation test results to come back, the doctors were fairly certain that I would be testing positive.

He took the news well. Having battled serious colorectal cancer not even two years earlier, I think he understood what I was going through.

My mother arrived later that afternoon, and I told her as well. Like my father, she remained strong and collected.

We would get through this as a family, they told me.

The remainder of the weekend progressed slowly, but with an odd sense of relief on my part. Tom came to visit me Saturday evening, staying for a couple hours as we talked and made plans for when I was finally released. I didn’t tell him what was going on… I just didn’t know how. I knew that the conversation could end up costing me the relationship that I cherished so greatly. Plus — as confident as the doctors were that I had HIV — there was still a slim chance that Monday’s test results would come back negative. For his sake, I clung to the far-fetched hope that I could still possibly test negative.

On Sunday morning, however, I had a change of heart. I felt that I needed to be honest with him. I grabbed my cell phone and began composing a text message.

I informed Tom that although we were still awaiting test results, there was a likelihood that I was suffering from Acute HIV Infection and would test positive the next day. I apologized, explained that he needed to get tested, and asked for his forgiveness.

I fully expected him to break up with me the moment that I sent the message. He didn’t.

Tom immediately called me. There was cautious optimism and genuine concern in his tone, but the underlying terror was obvious as his voice shook and he struggled to find the right words to say to me. He didn’t hate me, he promised, and he would remain by my side through thick and thin.

Truly, I thought, I had finally met a diamond in the rough.

He visited me again later that evening. We laughed and chatted for hours, played cards, and showed our affection for one another. He reiterated his firm support for me, and I nearly cried as I repeatedly expressed my gratitude.

I fell asleep Sunday evening with a sense of ease, feeling for the first time in days that everything might just be okay after all.

Confirmation

The following three days would pass without incident.

Monday came, as did the confirmation for which Mom, Dad, Tom, and I had been all been anxiously waiting: I was HIV-positive.

I was beginning to learn more about HIV, my current health status, and prognosis for the future.

I also got some important numbers to go along with my diagnosis. My white (CD*4/T-Cell) count was 650, as compared to uninfected persons who typically have a count of 3,000 or greater. My viral load (amount of virus in my system) was more than 10,000,000, as compared to uninfected persons who typically test in the range of 0 to 50.

With antiretroviral combination drug therapy, my physician told me, my T-Cell count would rise and my viral load would fall. If I reacted well to medication, my numbers might even be comparable to an those of an uninfected person. If I reacted well to medication, I would be able to live a relatively normal life.

More blood work would need to be done to determine which medications might work well for me. I spent Monday evening allowing nurses to drain vial after vial of blood from my body. I had become convinced that I was feeding a herd of hungry vampires that lived in the hospital basement.

My head Infectious Diseases physician scheduled me an appointment with her office for the following week. She would be reviewing my lab results and prescribing me a drug therapy regimen then.

By Tuesday morning, most of my Acute HIV Infection symptoms had disappeared and the doctor ordered my IV removed. It was then that the physicians began talking about discharge. Finally, this ordeal seemed to be coming to an end… or at least a new beginning.

It was January 31, 2012.

Quite Positive - This is my life after the test came back.

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