Ill with AIDS, Ashe says less-fortunate need a national health plan His annual bill now runs $22,000

October 02, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Effortlessly, Arthur Ashe recited the 11 drugs that constitute his arsenal against AIDS and heart disease. Complicated names and acronyms rolled off his tongue, making him sound at times like a talking pharmaceutical dictionary.

It costs $18,000 a year to stock his medicine chest. Visits to his dermatologist, cardiologist, neurologist, internist, infectious disease specialist and dentist bring his yearly health care bill to $22,000.

And that, he said, is without factoring in the heart and brain operations he has endured in recent years. He doesn't sweat the bills. He has health insurance.

Mr. Ashe told an audience of health care providers yesterday at Baltimore's Scarlett Place that America must decide on a national health plan that guarantees certain medical services to everyone, regardless of income.

"If you have the resources, you can have instant access to the best medicine anywhere in the world," the former tennis star said a forum on "medically complex patients" sponsored by NeighorCare Pharmacies. "If you don't, you will have to accept a smaller level of health care," he said.

In 1979, Mr. Ashe's first heart attack forced him into quadruple bypass surgery. In 1983, he had another heart attack, and another heart operation. Feeling lousy after the second operation, he was given the choice of waiting patiently for his energy to return or hastening it with a blood transfusion.

He chose the transfusion and got two units of blood. He felt better. But in September 1988, his right hand suddenly became paralyzed. A scan showed a brain lesion resembling one of the craters of the moon. A biopsy found toxoplasmosis -- a deadly infection that is almost a sure sign of AIDS.

Doctors confirmed AIDS, blaming it on the transfusion, which was given 1 1/2 years before blood banks employed a test to screen out tainted units.

If the shock of his diagnosis weren't bad enough, he developed excruciating kidney stones and a skin disease that covered his body with painful splotches and blisters -- reactions to a drug that he was given following brain surgery.

A controlled anger surfaced when Mr. Ashe was asked about the leak that forced him to hold a press conference last April and tell the world that he has AIDS.

"It is assumed in New York City that anybody famous comes into a hospital, even under an assumed name, the word is going to come out," said Mr. Ashe, who figures that a hospital insider leaked the news to USA Today. It was a reporter's phone call one afternoon that forced Mr. Ashe to call a press conference the next day.

He said he had always planned on discussing his illness, but in his own time. "My anger is directed at the fact that someone forced me to do it when I didn't want to," he said.

Now that he has been thrust into a public role, he said, he feels comfortable speaking out for a more equitable health care system, for compassion toward AIDS patients, and against those doctors who refuse to treat people with the disease .

So far, he said, the only negative reaction has come from Larry Kramer, the playwright and gay activist who suggested on a cable television show that Mr. Ashe should have gone public the moment he was diagnosed.

"Here's Mr. Kramer telling me how to run my life. My reaction was Mr. Kramer could go to hell. And that's putting it mildly."

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