Staying healthy and active in two pandemics
June 18, 2020
A good country music song could be written about Phillip. All the components are there: A father he didn’t get along with, prison time, dealing with alcohol, losing a job.
Throw in living through two pandemics and the song would take a different twist.
“I lived through the AIDS pandemic in the eighties,” says Phillip White, 58. “Didn’t think I’d have to live through another one!” Phillip was visiting Damien Center this day to get an antibody test for the virus that causes Covid19.
He was hoping it was positive. “I’m applying for a part time job, and if it’s positive, the employer can let me work with people when the store reopens. If I test negative, I won’t be able to work with customers right away.”
Which would seem to be difficult for Phillip, a talkative, expressive gentleman. “There are so many unknowns with this Covid. I’ve been taking HIV medications for years. Do they protect me from Covid? No one knows right now.”
Phillip was born in Greenfield, IN but moved to California as a baby. Then back to Indiana - this time Fortville - when he was 14. “I was that gay kid in a conservative town with an abusive father,” says Phillip. “It took me a while to not feel guilty that I wasn’t sad the day my father died.”
Today he was stopping by Damien Center for lab work, but he’s been coming to Damien since the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. “Back in the 1980s, I came to the location on Pennsylvania Street”, referring to Damien Center’s original location in Indianapolis, in a building owned by the Catholic diocese.
“I had AIDS, was on AZT. I already thought I was dying, and the medications made me even sicker.” Patients like Phillip in those early days of AIDS treatment were pioneers. Science surrounding antiretroviral therapy was just developing. Fear of the unknown inflamed stigma. “I was at a demonstration after Ryan White’s tombstone had been knocked over and desecrated,” said Phillip. “Then listening to Ryan’s mom speak - that was one of my more memorable moments of that time.”
A dancer by trade, Phillip has an associate’s degree in the arts and once taught dance classes at Butler University. At 6’3’ and 153 lbs., it is easy to see how Phillip would strike quite an impressive presence on a stage. He didn’t take his first drink of alcohol until he was 26, but then used alcohol as a medicine. He lost jobs. He turned to crime and was served six years in prison for charges related to burglary.
“But, prison saved my life,” he said. It was prison, but it offered stability.
Thoughts on Damien Center
Right now, with the Covid precautions in place, Damien reminded Phillip of prison. “It’s all so clinical. There were just a lot of activities at Damien before Covid,” says Phillip. “And now it's kind of “get in the lab and get out.”
But he’s been around the block long enough to know the pendulum swings back. As a long term survivor who has an undetectable viral load, he credits the Damien Center with providing supportive programs that have really helped. The food pantry is something he takes advantage of often—it is integral to Phillip stretching the $800 a month he receives from Social Security. He sees a therapist at Damien, and has gone through its CLEAR counseling program, which helps individuals reduce their own risk factors in transmitting or getting HIV.
And Damien Center services have kept him healthy too. “I was down to 120 pounds!” he says. (Again, Philip is 6’3!) But he’s gained weight, learned how to deal with neuropathy his medications caused, and the stresses of life. “The Damien Center has given me many tools,” he says. “My therapist told me your body has a memory. So when you’re shaking and you don’t know why, you’re recalling something in the past.” Realizing that is half the battle.
And now, he’s well enough to look for work, a part time job which won’t interfere with his Social Security. When asked what he thought about the impact Damien Center has on the community, Philip said, “I think just being located in the neighborhood that the center is in is good. There are a lot of poor people around here, and throughout Indiana. Poor, medium poor, and really, really poor. Donors are providing a tremendous amount of services to all of them.”