Today is the final push. Those participating in AIDS Walk Los Angeles are spending this Sat., Oct. 12 contacting friends, family and co-workers by phone, email and social media in an effort to get in those last-minute donations before one of the biggest events in Los Angeles draws an estimated 25,000 people to the streets of West Hollywood.
"Please donate" is plastered all over the walls of Facebook with a big red "AIDS Walk Los Angeles" banner and a link to walkers' donation pages. This writer has been requesting her own donations for the past month, but with every request, the question kept returning. What does it really mean to donate to AIDS Walk? People know it's going to help those living with HIV and AIDS, but how does it help? Do people really understand what that $20 check they just wrote means to those who use the services of AIDS Project Los Angeles, the organization that benefits from the $69 million dollars that's been raised by AIDS Walk since 1985?
Zack, a 44-year-old man living with HIV and a dear friend of this reporter, agreed to speak to Examiner about the benefits he's received from APLA. Zack is not his real name, however. He asked that his real name not be shared since his family in Virginia is unaware of his positive status. Sadly, this is an all-too-common story from those who are living with HIV and AIDS. Coming out to family is often so traumatic and painful that sharing a positive status is just far too much to bear. Then there's the thought that your parents will always stare at you with sadness in their eyes, sure that you're on death's door whether you are or not. It's a pain no one wants to endure every year around the Thanksgiving table.
That has left many, like Zack, reaching out to the community around them for support, and APLA has been at the forefront of providing that support since its inception in the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1983.
Zack was diagnosed in 2007, in days when drug cocktails and odds for survival were much higher, but he admits that without APLA, he has no idea what would have happened to him, especially given the costs of the drug cocktails.
"APLA is a great, especially if you are on limited income," says Zack. "They help me with ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) which enables me to get the medicines I need to stay alive. They've also helped me with dental services and therapy. Since being diagnosed, I had to go on disability due to medicine side effects and mental health issues. I don't know what I would do without APLA's services."
There's been a lot of press about the early days of HIV/AIDS and the fear and abandonment that surrounded those living with the disease, but Zack says while things are better, there are still issues to overcome.
"The stigma is still there, and it hurts like hell at times. One of my favorite therapists was at APLA, and it helped get me to a healthy place in my mind. I can remember when I lived in Virginia in the early 90's, and there were really no resources or help available. My dear friend, Toby, died because of it. I am so grateful to live in Los Angeles so that I have APLA's help. Without it, I don't know where I would have ended up."
Trish Vogel was one of those on the battlefront in those early days of the 80's. In 1984, she was an exchange student living in New York City with the man she calls her "Dominican Uncle," who was also a physician. It was the first time Trish ever heard about this "gay disease" that was spreading like wildfire.
"Dr. Acosta came home saying, 'I don't know what to do. My patients keep dying, and there is nothing I can do to save them. They're calling it AIDS.' It was the only time I had ever seen him close to tears. He was so frustrated, sad and angry."
Vogel wanted to help and assisted Dr. Acosta at his office, taking blood samples. "We had no idea back then it could be transmitted via blood, so I was handling needles without gloves and thinking nothing of it."
The real horror of this "new disease" then began to hit home personally for Vogel, who started losing close friends who had nowhere to turn after their diagnosis.
"My friends Lonnie and Steve were color consultants for Clairol and hair stylists at Pinot Fiore salon in New York City. They had been a couple for many years, working, living and loving together. They were so much fun to be around. Lonnie's famous remark was 'you know I have 11 colors of blonde in my hair!' We hung out every Halloween with all the drag queens in the city. I loved them."
Vogel tears up as she recalls Lonnie's diagnosis and rapid death. "Lonnie went so quickly. It was a matter of months. We were all stunned. I'll never forget walking up the steps to the church for Lonnie's funeral with his partner, Steve, our friend Randall and my husband, Bobby. We were the only ones there. No one else but the four of us. When I asked Randall why, he said, 'it's because we're the only ones left.' Steve disappeared from our lives after that, knowing he was next and with nowhere to turn. I was so sad that he died so alone."
When asked what kind of help there was, besides Dr. Acosta, in those days, Vogel almost laughs. "There were no services. The doctors that did care at the time had no idea what to do. There were a few doctors that cared, but it was painful for them as well. They kept watching their patients die. They could only treat symptoms like normal symptoms. Band-Aids, if you will. If someone had diarrhea or nausea it was Pepto-Bismol or a prescription form. Since it was touted as a 'gay' disease, uninformed health care people didn't pay much attention or even want to have anything to do with the infected people. They would treat the symptoms and send people home and sometimes give them that 'look' that made them wish they never went into the emergency room in the first place."
She admits she was even on the receiving end of lost friends and disapproving looks. "People wanted to stay away from me since I was near it. I would hold hands and touch and hug people infected. I felt the 'AIDS shun.' The 80's sucked in that regard."
By the 90's, Trish began seeing hope where none had existed before. "When my dear friend Lee was diagnosed in the 90's, I threw up. I thought it was over like Lonnie. But by then, they started having meds called cocktails and some supportive services. I couldn't believe there was a place Lee was getting help, and they were telling him he may not die. Back in the 80's, you absolutely would die. Lee is still living today and thriving. He has a show that he penned that was in previews on Broadway this year. He's my Phoenix."
Trish now lives in Los Angeles and is an avid supporter of APLA and AIDS Walk Los Angeles. While she is so grateful for the services APLA provides, she still feels sadness when she thinks of the friends she lost that might still be alive had they had the support of an organization like APLA in those early days.
"When I sat a couple of years ago at the Project Angel Food booth and saw how people were getting food delivered and how much care there was for AIDS and HIV patients, I cried when I got home. I knew Lonnie and Steve and my other friends would be alive if they had what everyone has these days. I can't imagine what it was like in Ohio or Virginia or anywhere else in the country in the 80's. Not only to not have services but all the judgment that came with it. It was horrible. I sadly experienced a world without APLA, and I wouldn't want to see that time ever again."
So when you get that 40th email or Tweet or message on your Facebook wall from a friend or co-worker or family member looking for a donation for tomorrow's 29th Annual Aids Walk Los Angeles, think about Zack and Lonnie and Steve. Remember those who lived without APLA and support those who couldn't live without it. No one ever wants to know a world where APLA no longer exists.
APLA was founded in 1983 by Nancy Cole Sawaya, Matt Redman, Ervin Munro and Max Drew. Donations are used for a myriad of support services, including medical, dental and mental health care, free food delivery by Project Angel Food, AIDS drug assistance, HIV testing, education and more. If you would like to contribute to APLA or volunteer, please visit www.APLA.org.
If you'd like to participate in tomorrow's AIDS Walk Los Angeles, visit the official site for more information.
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