Three of the first people in America caught in the AIDS epidemic were told nearly 20 years ago that they’d soon be in their graves.
'Who would have possibly predicted we’d still be alive in the 21st century?' says Niro Asistent, 57. 'I didn’t. Government experts were saying we’d die in 18 months or so.' Today, she and Mike Marshall, 57, of Los Angeles, and George Melton, 50, of San Francisco, are vital and thriving.
Their stories, along with those of 13 others, entered into AIDS annals with a 1988 report I wrote for Parade, a magazine aimed at middle-Americans, with a weekly readership of 82 million. At the time, there was little sympathy or compassion for them. Indeed, they were denied the ordinary decencies of a civil society. Many lost jobs, friends, family, homes. Despite this, 16 long-term survivors agreed to be named in the article in an effort to unravel AIDS’ mysteries.
What were they doing to stay alive and active? There was only one common quality among the 16 - gumption, resolve, inspiration and tenacity, or GRIT. All had, in other words, stubborn courage and brave perseverance.
Of the original 16, the three that are still with us - Niro, Mike and George - don’t share a common physical regime. Some take drugs; one won’t touch them.
What they do share is a common spiritual conviction that, while thousands with similar conditions have died, they have been spared - for a reason. All three have radically changed their views of themselves and of the world. For each of these survivors, the diagnosis of AIDS triggered an emotional apotheosis.
The survivors display one of the key elements of wellness: a sense of purpose, a mission to help others to heal.
'I feel I am one of God’s messengers,' says Mike Marshall. 'I wake up in this state of Grace because I have another day, and it’s about helping people less fortunate than myself.'
On February 2, 1984, Marshall recalls, 'Doctors told me I had AIDS and would die in six months. There didn’t seem to be any solutions, just burials.'
A onetime floral designer, he was beset with series of different illnesses. Over a seven-year period, he avoided drugs - there was a lot of suspicion over AZT and interferon. He turned to holistic remedies instead.
In 1988, Marshall was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, the typical skin cancer seen with AIDS, which responded to medical treatment.
In 1999, suffering vascular disease in a leg, he was told an operation was necessary or he could lose his leg. 'I went through a terrible, terrible 14-hour operation, but it saved me,' he says.
Now a masters-degree candidate in psychology at the University of California at Los Angles, he works in a project at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute on how people use HIV medications. Although Marshall initially avoided drugs, he now takes Hivid (DDC), Videx (DDI) and Zerit (d4T) - anti-HIV drugs - and multivitamins.
He has changed his lifestyle, is dedicated to meditation and devotes hours to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where he helps former alcoholics. 'I’ve learned that love is the most powerful tool for helping people, and myself,' he says. His e-mail address, he says, explains his survival: NOTIMETODIE.
Belgium-born Niro Asistent was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex (ARC) in 1985. She believed her days were numbered and that the antidote to death was spirituality.
A trained therapist, she concluded, 'It meant living in a state of integrity, and that meant being in harmony with my surroundings and having listening that comes from care rather than trying to protect myself so I can get by.'
She founded the Self-Healing AIDS-Related Experiment, aimed at supporting people with AIDS. 'I wanted them to know they can have a life; they don’t have to die in 18 months - they can live long and well. My life is dedicated to changing the whole energy around AIDS. I think it is the most powerful teacher that has ever existed on the planet.'
In 1992, tests showed that Niro had become HIV-negative. Dr Donald M. Pachuta, a Boston infectious-disease specialist, referred to Niro’s case as defying 'rational explanation'.
Niro has never used any of the drugs prescribed for combatting HIV, instead relying on a strict regimen of vegetarian/natural foods. She is devoted to meditation and dotes on two grandchildren. She is writing a sequel to her first book, Why I Survive AIDS, and lives in carefully guarded seclusion in upstate New York.
George Melton, a hair colourist with clientèle in New York and Los Angeles, sees drugs as a device to allow him to do really important work.
'I look at the cocktail of drugs as facilitators that allow me to show how AIDS can be a tool in getting in touch with self-truth and meanings and ways of love. In the beginning, I desperately wanted to do everything to make AIDS go away, so that I could be well and go back to my life as it was,' he says.
He became involved in support groups for other people with AIDS and, with his late partner Wil Garcia, wrote Beyond AIDS - A Journey Into Healing.
'But then, I became aware that there was much more to be done. Healing is not going back, but transforming yourself. I’ve used AIDS as a tool to show me the places where I could open my heart to more love - love of myself, love of others, love of my sexuality. I’ve been on that journey for 20 years.'
Bernard Gavzer, formerly an Associated Press feature writer and producer for NBC in the US, writes regularly for Parade and other publications.