For many, AIDS is not a death knell, but a call to live life to the fullest

November 09, 1991|By Randi Henderson

If there's a saying that rules Bill Urban's life, it's this: "God hands you lemons, so you make lemonade."

It was four years ago that Mr. Urban, 36, was given a diagnosis of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. And as he listened Thursday night to the message of courage and hope that basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson created in announcing that he, too, has the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, Mr. Urban, 36, knew the feeling. "Your life changes when the doctor walks in the room and says, 'You have AIDS,' " he said. "But it may not be all bad."

For Mr. Urban -- who is editor of The Alternative, a local gay monthly -- and for a number of other people with AIDS in the Baltimore area, Magic Johnson's words that "Life is going to go on for me" affirmed the way they have lived their own lives since being diagnosed with AIDS or HIV infection.

Some patients also find they can improve their own lives by giving their time and talent to the battle against AIDS.

"I had to decide whether to curl up in a hospital bed and die, or fight it," Mr. Urban said. "I decided to fight. I felt I had to help other people understand this, to educate the community."

Educating people has also become a focus for Tema Luft, 38, who found out in February 1987 that she was infected with the AIDS virus. "You have to learn when you can make a difference and when you can't," said Ms. Luft, who works for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. "It's almost like starting life all over again. You've got a new set of eyes. Everything is different. You really know what matters and what doesn't."

One of the things that has mattered to Ms. Luft has been speaking to young people and community groups about how AIDS can be prevented.

People listen to her, she has found, because she doesn't fit the stereotype. "I'm middle-class, I'm a blue-collar worker, I'mfemale," she explained. "I can talk to people who won't listen to the IV drug user or the homosexual."

And on a more intimate level, Ms. Luft values more than ever before "the little dumb things that everyone thinks are no big deal. Being able to drive myself to work. Going to the grocery store to get milk. Making my own meals. These are the things you appreciate."

John McWilliams, a peer counselor for the People With AIDS Coalition, also found that the disease changed the way he looked at life and steered him onto another course.

"Helping other people keeps me going," said the 35-year-old former short order cook who learned he had AIDS this spring. "For me this was a blessing in a way. I've always wanted to work in the community and with people, and now that's my full focus."

There is also a more spiritual element to his involvement with life now, Mr. McWilliams added.

"I now enjoy life to the fullest every day," he said. "I look at the hTC trees. I look at people being happy. I smile at everyone. Before I was diagnosed, I just woke up every day and went to work."

As the physician for about 50 people with AIDS, Baltimore internist Raymond Altieri has seen his patients re-prioritize their lives, but only about 30 percent get involved with AIDS-related community service work. The new focus he sees revolves more around personal health concerns. "People feel they have to really take care of themselves, to give time to themselves," he said. "They become very preoccupied with this."

Bill Lowry, chairman of the PWA Coalition, finds that his life is often consumed with concerns about things like the expense of his daily medications and regular doctors' visits and his necessity to stick with his job at the state health department because he knows he could not get health insurance elsewhere. "You develop survival skills. You begin to take care of your own life," he said.

Mr. Lowry, 49, said that after his infection was diagnosed in 1988, he went through the classic stages of anger, bargaining, denial and acceptance.

"And then beyond that to affirmation," he said. "Your life gets a whole new purpose." Even though Magic Johnson's new focus on life is something many AIDS patients can identify with, the situation is considerably different for some AIDS patients, said Andrew Barasda, executive director of HERO, Maryland's AIDS education organization.

"Magic has money, he has influence, he has power," Mr. Barasda said. "He will be able to get the best support system possible." For a huge segment of the nearly 200,000 Americans with AIDS, however, the diagnosis doesn't change the way they look at life at all.

"Comfortable middle-class gay men can talk about working for the community and appreciating sunsets," said John Stuban, 35, founder of the Baltimore chapter of ACT-UP, an activist AIDS group.

"But in the case of the inner-city drug addict, AIDS is often destroying lives that are already disasters. For the person who's having a hard time feeding himself, AIDS is just another overwhelming problem in a life full of overwhelming problems."

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