25 Stories: Losing a Buddy


September 07, 2012



A few weeks ago, you read about the beginning of Mark Lee’s journey to becoming an AIDS activist (the part where he visits a gay bar for the first time and realizes he has to take action), but it didn’t stop there. A few years after his unexpected introduction to what AIDS is and how he could help, Mark got involved with The Damien Center’s Buddy Support Program through Howard Warren, an HIV+ pastor at his church. Mark was one of the Center’s original buddies when he joined in 1987.

The program, according to Mark, was designed so that two people would be assigned to each person with HIV to serve as a support system for whatever was needed. “Our job was just to help them,” Mark explains. And help they did—with anything. It was the buddies’ job to help with transitioning to an HIV+ lifestyle, taking medications, advocating at doctor appointments, or even planning for their funerals. “Ideally you wanted to become a friend with them first, but a lot of times people didn’t have time for that,” Mark says. “They were thrown into dealing with hospitals who didn’t want to deal at all with people with AIDS and were being discriminatory, or with family members.”

Mark’s first buddy through the program was Bob, one of the last surviving members of the original group of People with AIDS. Though their relationship got off to a rocky start—Bob was wary of the program and Mark had recently lost a dear friend to AIDS—they ended up becoming close. “He was my best friend,” Mark recalls. Bob was tough, determined to live on in the face of HIV. Though the survival rate at the time was only six months to two years, Bob had already lived three years with the disease when he and Mark met, and he would live for another three after that.

But for Mark, his friendship with Bob became a source of guilt. He would go to Buddy Support Program meetings at The Damien Center each week and feel guilty because his buddy was in good health while others were struggling with ill health, or worse, with the death of their buddy. “I told them one time I felt guilty, because all we did was laugh and have a good time, and not really anything as far as helping him with doctors or anything like that,” Mark explains. “Then someone pointed out—that’s actually how it’s supposed to work. You develop this friendship, this trust between you, so that when he does need you, then you’ve already established that friendship, and he’s able to lean on you, and you can help him out with whatever he needs.” And that’s exactly how it panned out for Mark and Bob. When Bob eventually lost his eyesight and wasn’t as healthy as he had once been, Mark helped him through the last few months of his life.

Today, though the Buddy Support Program no longer exists, The Damien Center offers support to HIV+ individuals in the form of Care Coordination services. Highly trained Care Coordinators work with our clients to connect them with all the resources they need to life healthy lives and move forward each day with dignity. Stable housing, medical care, insurance, nutritional needs, counseling—clients and Care Coordinators work together to determine what the individual needs to be healthy and happy. Losing Bob was painful for Mark, but because of important support mechanisms like the Buddy Support Program and Care Coordination, those living with HIV can find the resources and relationships they need at The Damien Center.