Tales From My Life: The Time I Got HIV

In 2005 I was a Senior Airman (rank E-4) in the U.S. Air Force. My job title was 3C0X1, aka Communications Computer Systems Operator, aka all-purpose computer nerd. I was stationed at Sembach Air Base, which is located in Southwest Germany, about a twenty minute drive from both Ramstein Air Base and the Army’s Landstuhl Medical Center.

Picture of me wearing a military cold-weather uniform in the snow behind my office in Sembach Germany. In the distance are pine trees and a weather radar

Since Ramstein is the largest Air Force base in Europe, and Landstuhl is the largest military hospital outside the continental United States, this is where the military sends all the wounded soldiers from the Middle East. Several times a year, Sembach would have a blood drive due to the high volume of blood needed for all the incoming wounded soldiers. I love the idea of giving blood, but every time I do, my blood spews out so fast I get light-headed, nauseous and almost pass out. They always have to elevate my head and put a cold pack on my neck, which is pretty embarrassing. However, that first world problem pales in comparison to soldiers needing emergency transfusions. So I did my duty and opened my veins for my brothers and sisters.

Another reason I’m hesitant to give blood is because I had hepatitis when I was four years old. It wasn’t sexually transmitted, and I recovered from it. Multiple blood tests have shown it’s not in my system anymore. I couldn’t have enlisted if it was, but I always worried my blood might be dirty. However, this didn’t stop me from giving blood, because they test every donation for diseases. So if there was anything there, they’d catch it.

Since the military had already tested and inoculated me for everything you can be tested and inoculated for, I didn’t give my blood donation a second thought until a few weeks later when I stopped by the base post office to check my mail on my lunch break. That day I received an official letter from the military, which I had to sign for. This was highly unusual. So my heart rate was a little elevated when I opened the letter. My mind raced, trying to guess what I may have gotten in trouble for.

The news was much worse than I imagined. To my horror, the letter said my recent blood donation had tested positive for HIV, and I needed to contact the medical squadron as soon as possible to have another test done to confirm the results. By the time I finished reading the document, my head was spinning and darkness filled my peripheral vision.

I went back to work and tried to go through the rest of my day acting like nothing was wrong, but my head felt like a black hole, as if everything good had been sucked out of my life, leaving an existential vacuum in its place. Nothing mattered anymore. I was no longer working towards retirement. All of my hopes and dreams were unreachable. There was nothing left for me to do but wait to die… and give the bad news to my family, friends and most recent sexual partners.

Unable to face reality, I let a week pass without contacting the medical squadron. I walked through each day in a daze, watching what happened to me from a thousand miles away. I made a list of my sexual partners, which wasn’t long. I decided who the most likely culprit to give me this horrible disease was, a promiscuous Air Force girl from my previous base. I obsessed over who else I may have accidentally infected by having any kind of physical contact with, which I knew wasn’t possible, but my mind was stuck in panic mode.

Gif of Kermit the Frog shaking wildly. Above him are the words, "PANIC!"

I’d already had my last will and testament drawn up by a military lawyer a year earlier. So I didn’t have to worry about that, but I spent dozens of hours plotting my final words and trying to decide what to do with the few years I had left. As I ate tasteless food or carried on pointless small talk with my coworkers, I thought about my regrets and everything I wouldn’t get to do in the future. I didn’t try bargaining with God, because that would have been pointless. I was already a dead man walking. All I could do was make the most of my fleeting time and try to cry as little as possible. Mostly I thought about those poor souls I’d infected and needed to hurry up and pass on the tragic news to.

I didn’t want to tell anyone my secret until I knew for sure I had HIV. Lucky for them, even though I was dragging my feet, the Air Force wasn’t. A female nurse called me at work and asked if I’d received an official letter recently. I said, “Yes.” The nurse asked me what it was about, and I replied I’d rather not say out loud. I knew my boss, whose office sat caddy-corner from my desk, eavesdropped on my conversations. The nurse asked me to say the first letter of the pertinent word, and I said, “H.” After confirming she didn’t need to break the bad news to me herself, she scheduled an appointment at Ramstein a few days later for me to give more blood for further testing.

On the day of the test I told my boss I had to go to Ramstein for a routine medical checkup. Twenty minutes later I sulked into the medical clinic. As a male nurse quietly drew my blood, I asked how accurate the initial test was. He looked me in the eyes and said in a meaningful tone of voice, “Ninety-seven percent.”

I went home that night and got drunk, as I’d done every night for the past week. Even with all the lights in my apartment on, everything looked dark. It was like living in the Twilight Zone, where the rules of the universe were different for me, and not in a good way. The only ray of hope my mind could latch onto was that there had been a mistake, but I couldn’t take a three percent chance of a fluke happening seriously.  I’d have better odds of winning the lottery.

Fast forward several more months of bleakness, despair and blood tests. As fate would have it, I did win the Twilight Zone lottery. A ninety-seven percent accurate HIV test means three percent of the people who take it, win an existential nightmare that ends with them receiving a new lease on life. I’ve had more STD tests since then, and they all confirm I never had HIV. Plus, all of my sexual partners from that time are healthy and alive.

Part of my brain tells me I should be mad at the world for giving me a false death sentence, but in the end, it was a blessing in disguise. I almost feel bad for anyone who hasn’t had to go through that. It’s so easy to take life for granted and let the years slip by without really thinking about what’s important or how you should spend what little time you have on Earth. I basically got my mid-life crisis out of the way at the age of 25.

People told me I was crazy when I immigrated to New Zealand at the age of 29 despite having never visited the country. In my mind, the risk of not experiencing life to its fullest outweighed anything that could possibly go wrong. I only spent three years in New Zealand, and during that time a lot of things did go wrong, but experience has taught me, you’re not having an adventure if everything goes right. And as a wiser man than myself once said, “The summer would not be so sweet, were it not for the winter.” When bad things happen to me, and those two pieces of wisdom don’t put things into perspective, I can always remind myself, at least I don’t have AIDS.

The other thing I took away from this experience is that it’s important to leave something good behind when you inevitably die. I don’t have any money to shower the poor with, but the one thing I do have is wisdom gained through often unpleasant experiences that I don’t want to be in vain. This is a big part of why I’m in such a mad dash to write as much as I can regardless of how little it pays. I hope my blog and books inspire, enlighten and entertain you. That’s all I need to take to my grave.

P.S.

Here’s a link to a free copy of my E-book, “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life.”

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