World Aids Day: Suddenly I had a future, the relief was immense

Patient co-ordinator Chris is one of the longest living survivors of HIV in Britain. He speaks to Patrick Strudwick

A head pokes out of an office door in one of Britain's leading HIV clinics. "Two minutes!" chirps Chris, the patient co-ordinator. Five minutes later, he leads me out of the bright, modern waiting area of London's Bloomsbury Clinic and into a lecture room. Chris looks about 50 and moves like an impatient 20-year-old.

He's 65, a former theatre director. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1984 and believes he caught the virus in 1976, making him one of the longest survivors of HIV in Britain.

His story, of burying partners and friends as terror surged through Britain, of fighting desperately for treatment, funding and basic human rights, is the story of HIV/Aids.

Chris begins his account in 1981. "That was when I first heard something. A friend came back from San Francisco and said, 'There were all these skeletons pushing trolleys round the supermarket."

Local reports appeared of a mysterious illness creeping into the gay community – stories that were picked up in Britain. "We had a sense it would come here," says Chris, who has asked for his surname not to be printed. He was living in London with his partner Robert, an architect of the same age.

They met in 1976 and later that year, Robert went to New York on holiday. On his return he infected Chris with Hepatitis B. "He lived life to the full – let's put it that way," says Chris.

In 1980, Robert started getting ill – stomach problems, fevers - and in late 1982, was diagnosed with Aids. "The doctors said he had a matter of months to live," says Chris. "We didn't tell anyone at first – we had each other."

The couple set about trying to carry on as normal. With no medication, they began searching frantically for alternative treatments. "We went to an Indian guru, we imported food preservatives from the States because there was a rumour this could help. We took vitamins by the gallon."

When Chris tested HIV positive in 1984, during the first trials of the test, he was given two years to live, but there was no time to absorb the news.

A few months later, Robert was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and kept in isolation. "They insisted on barrier nursing – being covered in disposable white clothing from head to foot, and a face mask." Chris was told not to kiss Robert. "But I ignored that. A friend of his said she'd never known anyone love another person as much as I loved Robert. I did everything I could for him."

He had little choice – some of the doctors refused to treat Robert. "They wouldn't even go in his room. There was so much fear; they knew nothing about it. People were being buried in concrete to stop contamination."

The Thatcher government's "Don't Die of Ignorance" public information campaign on television showing a falling tombstone and the grim reaper informed and terrified Britain, fuelling stigma toward the then 7,500 people with Aids. Bricks were thrown through windows. Houses were firebombed.

Chris's friends started to die: in total he lost more than 20. "It was… devastating. We knew it was his last Christmas and on Christmas Eve I took him home from the hospital because he wanted a bath in our own bathroom, which was on the third floor. I was able to carry him up three flights because he weighed less than five stone."

On Christmas Day, Robert's spleen ruptured so Chris rushed him back to the hospital. "The doctor said, 'Does he know he's dying?' And I said 'Yes'. The doctor burst into tears. In that period, hospital staff were so freaked out at having no control over the disease they'd show their emotion."

Once Robert was sedated with diamorphine, Chris went home. "I remember drinking half a bottle of Scotch and…" He stops, jaw locked, as if disabled by the memory. "He made it through to New Year's Eve and just decided to stop fighting. An hour before he died he sat up in bed and hugged me." With his partner gone, Chris started fighting for everyone else's lives. He threw himself into Aids fundraisers, putting on one-off shows in the West End and volunteering for the Terrence Higgins Trust. By the 1990s he had far outlived his two-year death sentence.

"I never thought about the fact I wouldn't get to 50. You focus on the moment, day-to-day. I had a Damoclean sword hanging over me but it kept not falling."

More than 90 per cent of those diagnosed in the 1980s died. When effective medication came in in 1996 – anti-retroviral therapy – it was too late for many, including Robert's second partner, Michael, who also died. Alongside the treatment came the viral load test, which reveals how potent the virus is in your body.

Chris's viral load was so low it was undetectable. The doctors were flabbergasted. Chris, it transpires, is a genetic anomaly, the one person in 500 who is now referred to as an "elite controller" of HIV – whose immune systems stems the development of the virus. Suddenly, in 1996, the sword was lifted: his doctor estimated he had another 20 years. "The relief was immense. Suddenly I had a future. I went back to uni, met a new partner and had a whole new lease of life."

Only in 2003, after having HIV for, perhaps, 27 years was Chris put on antiretroviral medication. The disease is now a manageable chronic condition with a near normal life expectancy for those who are diagnosed early and medicated. But the fear, denial and misinformation persist.

"Now, the people who die are mostly the ones who don't get tested and treated, who leave it too late. People still think it happens to someone else, that it will never happen to me."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all failed
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    LSA Level 3 required in Caerphilly

    £50 - £60 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: O...

    Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

    £100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

    £100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?