“Fight back!” Mike Hellman screams into the microphone, and the crowd responds with a hearty, “End AIDS!”
After sixteen short readings, spoken words, and performances by students and faculty, Hellman took the stage on Monday evening to deliver the keynote speech during the Red Ribbon Monologues.
In celebration of World AIDS day, which first began in 1988, and to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, the Student Union for Multicultural Affairs presented the monologues, asking Hellman of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force to speak.
Hellman has worked with the Task Force for ten years, volunteering as a Personal Perspectives Presenter and an HIV/AIDS 101 presentation speaker.
He himself has AIDS.
“This is my story,” he said.
Hellman said in 1985, at the age of 27, he went to the county health department in Michigan to get tested for HIV/AIDS. He waited a month for the results before he was finally called back and told that he was confirmed positive for HIV and that he had about 18 months to live. He was instructed to return home and reduce stress.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a virus that attacks the blood cells, preventing them from effectively fighting off disease and weakening the immune system. When the immune system is extremely weak and allows other infections to enter the body, the person has developed AIDS.
Hellman has now been HIV positive for 27 years and has had AIDS for 18 years.
“I saw a lot of my friends go off and self destruct, basically,” he said. “We were told we were going to be dead, so they went out and did drugs and got drunk every night and they died because they self-destructed. I said I need to take care of myself, and so I didn’t write into it. I guess part of it was that I had somebody else to take care of, so I wasn’t thinking so much about myself as I was about my partner at the time. And he did die two years later. I was constantly taking care of someone else while just trying to maintain day-to-day. I don’t think it was until maybe three or four years later that I gave any thought to what I needed to do.”
Since his diagnosis 27 years ago, Hellman has been through countless medicines to fight back against HIV, to strengthen his immune system, and to help him function through daily life without the side effects of HIV and his medication.
Among other things, Hellman struggled through fatigue and exhaustion, diarrhea, anemia, chemotherapy, fat deposits, and an extremely low T cell count.
Today, he takes nearly 30 pills a day—only one of which is specifically for HIV—and spends nearly $3,000 dollars a month on medication.
Through it all, not knowing may have been the hardest part for Hellman.
“I was always thinking about the future,” he said. “You’re young. You’re in college. You’re getting a career. You’re doing a lot of things, and so I was always thinking ahead five or ten years and asking where do I want to be in the future? When I was told I had HIV, all I could think about was, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow? What’s going to happen tomorrow?’ And so it became a much more reality day-to-day moment-to-moment living, not thinking about the future but thinking about just making it through the week, through the day, through the next week, through the year, so my goals became very very short. That was the biggest impact [HIV had] on my life.”
His advice to students is simple—don’t share needles, and use protection during sex.
Someone is affected by HIV every six seconds, and 20 percent of those living with HIV don’t know that they are infected.
“Routine testing [is important],” said Hellman. “Just ask for it. That’s the key, just ask for it. Just get tested. Every six months.”
The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force provides free testing and information for HIV and AIDS.
As Hellman reflected on how his life has been affected by HIV/AIDS, he came clean with the crowd about why speaking.
“Those are not the things I want for you,” he said. “I don’t know you, but I know you well enough to know that I love you, and I don’t want that for you.”