Couple's bond can't be broken by their adversity

Dan Rodricks

May 18, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Back at the start, when she understood what was happening -- that she and Charlie Gerhardt were probably falling in love -- Tema Luft felt guilty. She had AIDS. Charlie knew it, but the relationship continued. Charlie stayed with her.

"Heavy guilt trips," Tema says. "I kept saying to him, 'I'm going to die,' and I told him there would be discrimination against him when people found out about us. And suppose we have just a few years of happiness, then I die and it hurts so terribly. We had that discussion more than once. More than once. . . . Then I kept worrying that one day this guy would open his eyes and say to himself: 'What the hell am I doing?'"

That never happened. Charlie knew what he was doing. As time went by, he knew more about Tema, and he knew more about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

It so happens that they were married May 3, with Charlie's 19-year-old son by a previous marriage serving as best man, and 50 friends and relatives in attendance. This week, they're off to Ohio State University for a panel discussion called, "Living With AIDS." They do a lot of public speaking together now. Tema and Charlie -- she's 39, he's 45 -- are what clinicians call a "discordant couple" because she's HIV-positive and he's still virus-free. The irony is that no "discordant couple" ever sounded more in harmony on things that matter.

But they've struggled.

Tema and Charlie both work for the C&P Telephone Co., where it was well known and eventually accepted that Tema had AIDS. In fact, she's been one of the most visible of the disease's victims in Maryland, a tireless advocate for AIDS education and research, and an inspiration for those who struggle to live.

But when word got out that she and Charlie were an item, some of Charlie's co-workers at C&P said they didn't want to work with him anymore.

It didn't matter that Charlie was HIV-negative. If he and Tema, a heterosexual who had acquired the disease from a former boyfriend in the mid-1980s, were going to live together, then Charlie was at risk.His co-workers at C&P were cable splicers, and they were worried.

"One guy said, 'If a queer gets in the ocean with you, you can get it.' Another guy said something like, 'If you see a snake in the woods . . . you walk around it.' In other words, 'I know you're there, Charlie, so I'm not going anywhere near you.'"

Another co-worker told Charlie: "You've made a choice. You've excercised your rights. But you've taken away our rights to protect the health of our families."

Charlie shook his head a lot that day.

In the time since then, things have settled down.

"I don't have problems at work anymore," he says. "The people I work with, they're exposed to me every day, and I'm exposed to Tema every day, and nothing has happened. . . . People react to this on two levels. [AIDS] education is OK, but education does not overcome peoples' fears and prejudices. People

need a nudge to overcome their fears."

As a local official with the Communications Workers of America, Charlie has studied the potential hazards of AIDS in the workplace. A few years ago, when other C&P employees expressed concern about working with a carrier of the human immunodeficiency virus, Charlie was involved in assessing risk. That HIV carrier was Tema Luft. That's when Charlie first got to know her.

Now he can give a primer on AIDS. He cites statistics. He talks about "discordant couples." Research shows that the incidence

of HIV transmission from women to men is very low, he says. "It's 22 times greater going the other way. It's not impossible [for me] to get infected, but if the male is not infected, with proper precautions, the chances for it happening are astronomically small."

Charlie's AIDS education expanded as his relationship with Tema blossomed. So, when he's asked about the risks of living with Tema,he rattles off his research: "There have been no documented cases of household transmission. There have been only two cases of care-givers -- that's non-medical care-givers -- contracting the virus, one case in Canada, the other in England."

"Aren't you afraid you're going to get it?" he is asked.

"Yes, I'm afraid. You'd have to be an idiot not to be afraid. But I have no reason to believe that it would happen unless something really bizarre happened. . . . You asked me what was a bigger fear -- getting AIDS or Tema dying. Her dying is a lot more frightening to me than the chance of getting AIDS."

He and Tema have been together a couple of years now. She continues to work, to take drugs for her disease -- she's hoping to get into a new vaccine test at the University of Maryland Medical Center -- and to speak out on living with AIDS to all kinds of groups. Charlie makes the rounds with her all the time. They could be a discordant couple of the year.

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