When Christians get HIV

HIV positive.

Imagine what hearing that news would sound like . . . “We’re sorry, sir, but the test came back positive for the antibodies against HIV. You are HIV positive.”

I’ve never heard those words, but my friend, Rick, has. Rick is a medical doctor. Well, he WAS a medical doctor. In fact, he was a bit of a hero among doctors. He was an emergency medical responder; one of the first people on the scene of a disaster or emergency. The kind of people that put themselves at risk in order to save those in desperate need.

And it was one of those risks in 1989 that changed his life forever.

In the middle of a medical emergency, Rick was withdrawing blood from a man that was confused and combative. As he pulled the needle out, the man jerked, and Rick was stuck in the arm with it.

What Rick didn’t know that day, but feared most of all, was that this man had received the HIV virus through a blood transfusion back in 1982. Being a diligent doctor, Rick tested himself for the next several months. Nine months later, the test came back . . . positive.

In 1989, there wasn’t much to be done for HIV/AIDS. The drugs available today hadn’t been invented yet, and so for two years he did nothing while his HIV levels climbed off the charts.

A year after contracting the disease, his employer fired him for being HIV positive. The very job that had GIVEN him the disease was now firing him for HAVING the disease.

After five years of living with the disease, Rick’s wife decided she couldn’t handle it anymore and took his son, moved out and divorced him. Rick said he understood and supported her in the decision, but that it was one of the darkest days in his life.

So, Rick and I sat for coffee a few weeks ago inside a small Starbucks up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. For hours, we talked about life, sports, family and eventually the disease.

Rick lives in Seattle now. He doesn’t have a job. His time is so consumed with organizing and taking the many anti-retroviral drugs (ARV’s) that he must take at specific times each day (38 different drugs each day) to keep him alive, that he has no time to work. He lives in a small apartment. Has no transportation. No family around him to support him. By all human standards, Rick should be a miserable, bitter and angry man.

But strangely, Rick is full of LIFE . . .

I think what most surprised me about my friend Rick is the purpose with which he now lives his life. He volunteers his small “free time” speaking at public schools about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. He works with a group called LifeLong in Seattle that case manages AIDS patients. He packages condoms into “safer sex” kits to be handout around Seattle. And on Thursday nights, you’ll find my friend, Rick, sitting inside a non-marked gay bath-house in Seattle, surrounded by a lifestyle he doesn’t condone, handing out these kits to any guys that will take them on the way in.

At a time when life would seem to be over, Rick thinks it has just begun. Not that there haven’t been real hurdles. Not that he hasn’t tried to give up. Not that he hasn’t called into question a God that would allow what has happened to him in the first place. But, on the other side and through a lot of struggle, he has found a purpose and a passion to his life that few others (especially the healthy) ever find.

HIV positive.

If you ask Rick, it was the worst news he ever received. It completely devastated his life. But, the funny thing about Rick is, if you listen long enough, he’ll tell you that now he knows it was the best news for everyone else.

Because his life took this unexpected turn, he has learned to trust God and get involved in what God is doing to help others. In Rick’s own words, “If I never had gotten sick, I would still be a doctor, making money, but not trying to do my part to save these people.”

Rick is teaching me a lot about what it means to love. And he is teaching me a lot more about what it means to really LIVE life on this earth.

As another of my friends has often said, “I don’t care about adding days to my life anymore, I’m more interested in pursuing life for my days.”

Or as another friend of both Rick and I once said: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Jesus.

In fact, Jesus not only said this once, he is quoted as saying it in all four gospels (twice in Luke, actually). It is one of the few sayings of Jesus that was apparently equally memorable and important to all four individuals who documented Jesus’ life in the gospels.

But, maybe it wasn’t just memorable. Maybe it was reality.

Rick would agree. And so would I. And so many more people in our churches and communities could experience “life to the full” if they believed it too.