HIV Positive since the 80's
Smart, energetic, successful, driven…all these words describe Stu Smith, but the one term that fits hand-in-glove, Stu himself said best, “I’m a Type A personality” – A high-achieving, “workaholic” that multi-tasks among other things.
Stu was born in 1940 and raised in Palo Alto, CA with all of the qualities of life that an upper-middle class upbringing offers. That includes a good quality education, which Stu, being smart, took full advantage of.
“I took over a small company in Silicon Valley and that was right about the time when Intel and some other major tech firms were coming on the scene.” Stu’s company was very successful and he met his goal of retiring before he was 30.
“I was living in the closet and was going up to San Francisco all the time where I could have anonymous sex. About 1974, I bought a restaurant and bar in San Francisco with a guy and came out slowly through that.”
Stu left the restaurant in the early 1980’s and started a company that imported beer and wine. “I was doing a lot of promotions and producing events to increase awareness and sales.” One particular event was in Lake Tahoe where Stu suspects he was infected – but he was blindsided and you might even say betrayed by how he first got his diagnosis of being HIV positive.
“I had started what became a prominent restaurant in the San Francisco financial district with a straight partner. We decided to get buy/sell insurance.” Buy/sell (or key-man) insurance protects the interests of the remaining partner in case of the death of the other partner. “The insurance company gave each of us a physical and we each got the others results. I began to notice my business partner acting a little bit cold and distant. Finally it got to the point where I had to ask him what was wrong. He said ‘you’re HIV positive.’”
“I went to a doctor and he confirmed the results.” This was in the 80’s, or as a lot of people with HIV call it, “The Bad Old Days.” “The doctor said I had about 6-months to live and I could have only $2,000 in assets to qualify for Medicare so I began to liquidate my assets. I also started to drink very heavily. I was ashamed to have HIV and I was determined to die from an alcohol-related disease and not an AIDS-related disease.”
In the late 1980’s, HIV treatment was still relatively new so Stu started out on AZT and was having problems with the side-effects which didn’t help curb the drinking much.
Stu said, “I went to Shanti and took training to prepare to die from AIDS.” That’s where it began to turn around for him. Shanti is a San Francisco area organization founded in 1974 that uses volunteer peer support to help give emotional and practical support to people living with life-threatening and serious chronic illnesses.
“My experience with Shanti began to change me spiritually and emotionally.” Stu began to be able to disclose his status. “You have to remember, this was back when people didn’t want to touch your comb if you were HIV positive. About 2-weeks with Shanti changed my life. I became active so I didn’t just think of myself. I decided to get involved with my life and the lives of others.”
Stu also began to get involved with clinical trials. “I was saved by Dr. Steve Deeks and the researchers at UCSF. People forget that Polio was a terrible disease but now it’s almost non-existent because of research. There has never been a response to a disease like this in history – take advantage of it and give back to it.” He would recom- mend participation in clinical trials to people with HIV.
Over the past 8-or-10-years my T-cells have become very stable. I’m still participating in clinical trials but at 71, I’m mostly involved in trials dealing with aging and HIV.”
“It’s an entirely different world now,” Stu says of the HIV landscape. “A lot of young guys think it’s no big deal because it’s a manageable disease – but it still is a big deal.”
So what’s Stu up to now and what’s in the future? Where do we begin? Stu says, “ I’m serving my 4th-term as a board chair of Shanti and third as chair of the Paratransit Executive Council where we provide $22-million in transportation services to elderly and disabled customers. I started my own non- profit, Tin Pan Alley Productions, to raise funds for non-profits by producing music-based special events. I also host a public access television show called “The Drag Show” and I’m the “Burger Guru” on Yelp among other things. I’m in a committed relationship with a 24-year old man and we just renewed our vows New Year’s Eve at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, CA.
Stu is one of the true survivors and inspirations in the fight against HIV. As you’ve read, it hasn’t always been easy but if you keep trying, it is possible to make your life as fulfilling as you ever imagined.
Copyright 2013, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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