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One Man's Heroic Optimism Against Devastation of AIDS

August 25, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

This year was supposed to have special significance in the lives of Robert Marsh and Crawford Hartley.

"This is the year we were going to retire," Marsh said. "We were planning on Crawford's 50th birthday to retire and live in Hawaii half the year. We really wanted to hit that 50 mark: to do it on our own at 50 and still look good enough and have enough energy to be able to travel and see some things and do some things.

"But all that got blown to hell."

Two and a half years ago, at the age of 47, Crawford Hartley died from complications of AIDS, acquired immune-deficiency syndrome.

And with his death ended an intimate 22-year relationship, one that began in 1961 when Hartley and Marsh met in Laguna Beach.

"When Crawford died, it was probably the most devastating thing that's ever happened to my life," said Marsh, 47, seated in the sun room of his home in Laguna Niguel, where he moved from Laguna Beach after Hartley's death.

Hartley, who was general manager and co-owner of the Coast Inn, a Laguna Beach gay hotel-restaurant-bar complex, was diagnosed with AIDS in November, 1982. Recalled Marsh: "I took him to the hospital on Dec. 28, and he died Jan. 19. I mean, it was very quick."

Indeed, the one thing that stands out most vividly in Marsh's memory is a small detail: Hartley's clothes. He remembers seeing them strewn on the sofa in their bedroom, right where Hartley had left them the night before he went to the hospital.

"It's like he went to work and never came home," said Marsh. "He wasn't that sick the morning I took him to the hospital. . . ."

Marsh paused, fixing his gaze on his visitor.

"It was just the shock that he never came back," he said quietly. "People ask me how did I feel about myself and I said I wasn't concerned with myself. I was trying to deal with the loss."

Marsh, however, has ample reason to be concerned with himself: He, too, has AIDS.

In fact, Marsh was diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare skin cancer that is associated with AIDS, in early 1981--a year and a half before Hartley was diagnosed and a year before a name had even been given to the disease, which destroys the body's immune system and for which there is no known cure.

Marsh is one of 137 Orange County residents and one of more than 12,400 people nationwide who have been diagnosed with AIDS, which has been described as the nation's worst public health problem, one that has baffled medical experts and one--until the highly publicized revelation last month that actor Rock Hudson has AIDS--to which most Americans have paid scant attention.

What angers Marsh the most, he said, "is that they always refer to AIDS as the 'fatal deadly disease' and that they don't know anyone who has ever lived, yet I go back to 1980 and I'm doing pretty well.

'Everybody Doesn't Die'

"I feel everybody doesn't die, and this aspect seems to go undocumented: anything for sensationalism instead of getting to the point that it is a human disease that strikes many people."

Half of the more than 12,400 reported cases of AIDS have resulted in death and, medical authorities say, most AIDS patients die within two or three years of being diagnosed. Marsh is one of 258 patients diagnosed in 1981 with the syndrome later named AIDS; only 40 of those patients are still alive, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

Marsh himself has known at least 50 people who have died from AIDS in the past year alone. "I have known more people who have died than my mother, who is 73, has known who have died in her entire life," Marsh said. "That's awfully hard to deal with."

Although his skin cancer has progressed, Marsh said, it hasn't been aggressive, and he hasn't developed any other problems associated with the disease. (Of the 2,434 cases of Kaposi's sarcoma alone--those without any of the other infections associated with AIDS--879, or 36%, have died thus far, according to the CDC.)

Marsh considers himself "lucky."

"I have my problems, but they haven't been as drastic as so many people's," he said.

"I do go through fatigue, but as my doctor laughed and said, 'Remember Robert, you're not 20 anymore,' " Marsh said, adding with a laugh, "and it's true."

A medium-built man with close-cropped brown hair, a trim beard and a penchant for wearing gold jewelry, Marsh admitted to having occasional emotional low points. But he has retained his sense of humor, he said. And his optimism.

"I have never from the beginning felt that I would die," said Marsh, dressed casually in jeans and a brown T-shirt that revealed purplish lesions on his arms, signs of the cancer for which he receives regular chemotherapy.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm optimistic, and when dealing with a disease like this, it certainly helps to be an optimist. The people I've seen who have died the fastest have been those who have been negative people. They looked for the worst in everything. They felt everything they saw was going to kill them. They didn't have a chance before they started."

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