Baltimorean lives with HIV, strives to save others from it Health: TV program gives Laurie Purdy another chance to press for education and compassion.

June 21, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Laurie Purdy surprises people when she shows up to give a speech about AIDS. Tall and attractive, she seems perfectly healthy. She does not look like a person who has been HIV-positive for six years.

"They're expecting [the speaker] to be a gay man, or an IV drug user," says Purdy, 31, of Baltimore. "Unfortunately, I ended up being a poster child for HIV, which is what I don't want to be."

Yet, in the past 4 1/2 years, she has brought news of the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome to high-school students, college crowds, and professional and amateur athletes. Tonight, she and five other women will be featured in an informal rap session on Lifetime television's "Late Date with Sari."

The show airs from 11 p.m. to midnight and is part of the fourth annual "Day of Compassion" effort to increase awareness about HIV infection and AIDS. It is a revealing and fascinating hour of frank discussion.

The women recall their shock and dismay on learning they were HIV positive. They talk about enduring small slights, such as people offering them drinks in paper cups instead of glasses. They discuss their sexuality and the painful process of rebuilding their lives. All stress the importance of education in preventing HIV's spread.

"People need to become more comfortable with talking about it," says Purdy, who notes there has been some progress. "Years ago, young people wouldn't stand up. Today, I have young people who will stand up and say, 'Thank you. My uncle passed away, and I had no way to talk about it.' "

Purdy was 25 when a boyfriend told her he was probably HIV positive. She didn't know much about the virus then, didn't believe she could be positive. After all, she wasn't gay and didn't use intravenous drugs. The truth practically destroyed her. "Suicide was an option," she says. "I felt like I was going to be dead tomorrow."

She credits the Health Education Resources Organization (HERO) with helping her adjust to being HIV-positive. Now she is one of about 1,600 women the Baltimore City Health Department has tracked in its AIDS statistical survey. City records show about 400 women infected by men. The overwhelming majority were infected through intravenous drug use.

Those percentages are reversed when national figures are considered. According to the Centers for Disease Control and 66 percent of the women with the virus were infected by men. In all, one in every 250 Americans has HIV, the CDC reports.

"It's not about homosexuals. It's about unprotected sex and lack of education," says Purdy, who lost a job because of the virus.

She says she worked 62 hours a week for the company, a combination florist and herb farm. One day she cut herself while cutting flowers. The company fired her within 24 hours of learning she was HIV-positive. She was called "a modern-day problem in an old-fashioned world." She decided against suing the company. The case would have taken 2 1/2 years to come to trial.

"I didn't know I'd be around in 2 1/2 years," says Purdy. But the incident inspired her to start speaking out about HIV and AIDS. "HIV affects the whole life, everything," she says. "It's the only disease I know of that you have to fight socially, medically and politically."

She has fought off two illnesses, including a bout of pneumocystis pneumonia. Last year's illness had a double-barrel effect on her life.

"One of the things it made me realize was that this [virus] was running around in my body," she says.

Her illness also brought her family closer together. Her parents had been distant, unable to handle what had happened to their daughter. Then they returned to be a part of her life -- "That was the best thing that could have ever happened," she says.

This September she celebrates her first wedding anniversary. Her husband, Steve, is not infected with the virus. Accepting his love was not easy, says Purdy.

"It was really scary," she says. She recalls asking herself: " 'Why does this guy want to be with me? Do I want to make his life tough in the future?' "

Several women in the "Late Date" session shared similar feelings. Being HIV-positive devastated their sense of self.

But part of their success in moving on lies in reclaiming their self-esteem and not letting the virus and AIDS define their lives. Now, Purdy collects and sells antiques. Yesterday, records salvaged from trash containers were propped in her living room, drying.

For her, the "Late Date with Sari" show will succeed if one person says, "Wow. That could be me."

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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