La Vida Latina
BY Benjamin Ryan
November 18 2010 5:00 AM ET
Having lived with HIV for well over a decade, Carlos Hernandez had pretty much resigned himself to not having a future. He eventually “ran out of T cells altogether,” he says, but he still refused to take antiretroviral medications. He’d tried them a couple of times in the early days of the newly formulated drug cocktails and was adamant that he’d never face the side effects again. The fact that more tolerable medications had been rolling out of the pipeline over the years since his last attempt at treatment in 1999 escaped him.
“I told myself, Screw it! My days are numbered,” he recalls. “I quit paying my taxes. I just quit paying attention. I didn’t plan on being around. To me, my only future was that I was just going to have a slow death from AIDS.”
After two bouts of meningitis, he wound up in the hospital for what seemed like the third and final time — so ill that the 5-foot-8 Hernandez dwindled from his usual 170 pounds to 85. It was finally time, he felt, to tell his family that he was HIV-positive.
Similarly apathetic, heroin addict Samuel Morales, who tested HIV-positive and was given six months to live in 1985, blazed through the go-go decade on a spree of theft and drug dealing, bouncing back and forth between prison and the streets of Philadelphia. “That was my thing: drugs and stickups,” the 53-year-old preacher’s son and one-time honors student says. “I didn’t really care about life. My life was like… I walked in the streets and felt like people knew who I was. I would stick them up and tell them, “It’s not me. It’s the drugs.” I guess I was looking for somebody to kill me, or I was trying to kill myself. I ain’t care about life.”
In 1990, facing a bundle of charges, including attempted murder and skipping out on bail, Morales pleaded no contest and was sent to prison for eight to 20 years. There, continuing to deal and use drugs on the inside, he faced the dismal medical care typical of U.S. prisons throughout much of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, extended stays in solitary confinement, and the apparent certainty that he would die before ever getting out.
In contrast, 41-year-old Mexican native Gabriel Rocha says that he was desperate to live but was unable to find any help that would allow him to. In 1999 while living in Puerto Vallarta his health declined to a point as dire as Hernandez’s at its worst. “Doctors wouldn’t touch me,” he wrote earlier this year in his fund-raising pledge for the California AIDS/LifeCycle. “They told me I was going to die and there was nothing they could do for me. They condemned me to a death sentence and were unwilling to lift one little finger to help.”
Fortunately, Rocha had a patron saint of a friend in the United States who flew him to San Francisco. Cheating death, he would remain in the hospital there for the next four months. Eventually, he applied for and was granted political asylum in the States. But it wasn’t just the lack of proper medical care in Mexico that threatened his life; he was once abducted by a group of men and tortured over a two-day period because of his sexual orientation.