How A Slip Of Paper Impacted An AIDS Diagnosis

Dec 1, 2017
Originally published on December 2, 2017 12:14 am

Christopher Harris was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. At the time, there was only one drug approved for treatment, and the diagnosis often meant a death sentence.

For Christopher, it led him to become an early member of the Atlanta Buyers Club, which distributed unapproved drugs to treat AIDS patients.

The diagnosis came not long after he began seeing Jim.

"He was so good looking," Christopher tells StoryCorps. "It was the first time that I had fallen in love, and we were together until the day he died."

Christopher had been married to a woman, but the relationship fell apart after he came out. They lived together for 14 years and had a daughter.

Not long after he and Jim got together, Christopher, now 73, began feeling sick. He saw several doctors, but he says they all told him the same thing: "Nothing's wrong with you. You're just nervous because of your difficult divorce."

Christopher wasn't convinced. That's when he went to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

"The doctor asked me if I was at a high risk for this new disease that was going about," he says. "I said yes. So when I finally went back for my next appointment, the young resident ... told me that I had AIDS, and I never shall forget, he was about to cry."

He told the doctor he had a child to raise. He couldn't die — not yet. The doctor told him he had 12 to 14 months.

"But we're going to fight to make that better," he says the doctor told him. "Are you willing to fight?"

At one point during treatment, Christopher's T cell count had dropped. A physician assistant told Christopher there were some new drugs that might help, but they weren't available because the FDA had not yet approved them. He told him there was a place in town to get the drugs, but he couldn't say where. On his way out of the office, he told Christopher he had dropped a slip of paper.

"I said, 'No, I didn't.' He said, 'Yeah you did.' And I looked down. There was a piece of paper he had thrown across the desk. And I picked it up, and it was a phone number," Christopher recalls.

Christopher called the number, reaching a group of men that eventually became known as the Atlanta Buyers Club. They were distributing medications from the black market.

After receiving the drugs he needed, he thanked them and said he wished he could help them.

"And they said, 'Do you really mean that?' I said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'Well, be here Friday night.' And I started working with them, at the Buyers Club," he says. "And we were tough. We were just tough. But, I think I'm the only one left, and they were wonderful guys."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mitra Bonshahi with Kerrie Hillman.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps and StoryCorps' Legacy initiative. This helps people with serious illnesses record their stories. At Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Christopher Harris looked back on the early days of the AIDS crisis. Harris was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 when there was only one drug approved to treat the disease. He had come out as a gay man having been previously married to a woman.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS: I loved my wife as much as a gay man can love a woman. We lived together as a married couple for 14 years and had one child. And then I was at a bar one night and met this guy. And he was so handsome and so nice. It was the first time that I had fallen in love, and we were together until the day he died.

We had not been together very long, and I was feeling ill. Well, I went to several private doctors, and they kept saying, nothing's wrong with you. You're just nervous because of your difficult divorce, you know? And I went to Grady. And during that time, the doctor asked me if I was in high risk for this new disease that was going about. I said yes.

So when I finally went back for my next appointment, the young resident who - he was such a nice young man - told me that I had AIDS. And I never shall forget he was about to cry. And I said to the doctor, I had a child to raise. And I just could not die right then. He said, well - he said, 12 to 14 months, but we're going to fight to make that better. Are you willing to fight? So we settled into the rigors of treatment.

And then I was called in one day and told my T cells had dropped below 100. And he told me that there was some new drugs out there. They might help you, but they weren't available. So I said, what do I do? He said, well, there's a place here in town that you can get these drugs. And I said, where can I get them? He said, I can't tell you. And then he said, you dropped a piece of paper on the floor. I said, no, I didn't. He said, yeah, you did.

And I looked down and there was a piece of paper he'd thrown across the desk. And I picked it up. And it was a phone number. And I called that number. And there were some guys who had just begun trying to distribute these medications that they were getting on the black market. I told them what I needed. They said bring $50 in cash. So I went. I said, guys, thank you so much. This means so much.

I said, I really wish I could help you. And they said, do you really mean that? I said, yeah. They said, well, be here Friday night. And I started working with them at the Buyers Club. And we were tough. We were just tough. But I think I'm the only one left. And they were wonderful guys.

GREENE: Christopher Harris remembering the Atlanta Buyers Club. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.