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
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

    £8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

    £14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable