Ashe says he has 5 years, 'maybe'

April 10, 1992|By Andrew Kirtzman | Andrew Kirtzman,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Arthur Ashe said yesterday that he may not live an additional 10 years.

"Ten years from now, no, I probably won't be here, but five years from now, maybe," said the 48-year-old tennis legend, who revealed Wednesday that he has had AIDS for 3 1/2 years.

Ashe told Bryant Gumbel on the "Today" show that he once thought he'd be dead by now, based on information he read in Scientific American magazine in 1988, the year he was diagnosed with AIDS. But he said he has been holding steady since then.

Ashe's cardiologist, Dr. Stephen Scheidt of New York Hospital, said "no one can answer" how much longer Ashe will live, but said he has responded well to treatment.

Ashe took pains to absolve his surgeon, Dr. John Hutchinson, of any blame for his HIV infection. Ashe said it probably occurred in a 1983 post-operative blood transfusion at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. He recalled receiving one or two units of blood.

On Wednesday, Hutchinson said he didn't remember Ashe receiving the transfusion.

Scheidt yesterday said that, although he never saw the actual transfusion, he was sure Ashe got AIDS that way. He said Ashe's veins show no sign of any IV drug use, and that he believes Ashe when he says he has never had a homosexual encounter.

Meanwhile, the full scope of the effort to protect Ashe's secret -- by journalists, doctors, family and friends -- was revealed yesterday.

Sportswriter Frank Deford said Ashe called him in September 1988 with the news of his diagnosis.

"He said, 'Don't tell anybody,' " recalled Deford.

The Newsweek contributing editor said he never considered publishing the story in Sports Illustrated, where he then worked, or in The National, the daily sports publication he edited.

"I don't think it ever entered his mind I'd ever betray him," Deford said. "He wasn't talking to me about it as a journalist, he was talking about it as a friend."

Gumbel told The New York News he got a similar call from Ashe in 1988.

"It was told to me in confidence, as a friend, and I promised not to betray the confidence," Gumbel said. "I don't think it was a tough call."

Scheidt said a dozen or so doctors had direct knowledge of Ashe's AIDS condition, plus "dozens to hundreds" more who had reasons to suspect, such as nurses, technicians, pharmacists and insurance processors.

"No physician who knew anything specifically about his AIDS or medical care would disclose it," he said. "I told my daughter 30 minutes before his press conference."

What Ashe described as a "silent and generous conspiracy" to protect his secret ended when a USA Today reporter called him this week, forcing his reluctant announcement Wednesday.

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