LONG BEACH — The words fall like an executioner's blade, and the cut is never clean. Michael Brown sees the impact every time he has to tell clients--usually male, usually homosexual--that they have been exposed to AIDS.
"You can watch it happen in their face," Brown said, "because they're absolutely open . . . . I want you to know that it's not pleasant. . . . Their fear is so profound that they shut down."
In that frozen moment, however, Brown finds opportunity. As the volunteer executive director of The Center/Long Beach--one of the first AIDS screening facilities in the nation--he tries to tell his stunned clients that what they initially perceive as a death sentence could instead be a second chance at life. Few are easily convinced.
"It takes a tremendous amount of energy because you don't want to be cruel, but you've got to get them to listen," Brown explained. "You don't have to feel sorry for them, because all those clients that are (testing) positive feel sorry for themselves. What they need is, 'Look, this is not the end of the world.' "
In a basement back-room of the center's muddy-colored building at 2025 East 10th St., Brown and a corps of other volunteers spend two days a week privately counseling men and women who have had their blood tested for HTLV-III, an antibody associated with AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is found only in people who have come in contact with the virus that causes AIDS. And while its presence doesn't necessarily mean that someone has or will get the incurable disease, the antibody is its only known precursor.
Researchers believe an exposed person has, at worst, a 5% to 20% chance of contracting the disease. But Brown preaches to his clients that even those odds could be significantly reduced if they modify their life styles in a few sensible ways.
"I have no doubt at this point," said Brown, who holds an academic rather than medical degree, "that if you begin to take certain sexual precautions and if you begin to . . . give some attention to general life style, your diet, your drug use, that you could probably reduce your risk of developing active AIDS down to almost nothing."
It is a message that Brown firmly believes, although one grounded less in science than in the endless optimism that generates from the 46-year-old Long Beach native. The fact is, no one knows with certainty if or when AIDS will strike an exposed person. To date, it mostly victimizes male homosexuals and intravenous-drug users but remains an increasing threat to the general population.
Far from a white-coated researcher who hunts for cures in the bottom of a test tube, the blue-jeaned Brown confronts this epidemic in the faces of its victims.
"On not very good days, it's tough," he said. "I've had as many as nine" counseling sessions with people who have tested positive.
Some Turn Violent
And the range of reactions is "incredible," he said. Some take the news casually. Others want to strike out at someone else. "This one guy, his reaction went blank. All of a sudden, he got angry: 'They should close down those bathhouses; they should close down those bathhouses.' The guy wanted to take absolutely no responsibility for his behavior." Still others crumble in tears.
"I suppose that I really feel bad" for those he counsels, he said, "but the reality is that somebody in that (counseling) setting has to have control. You also have to have a belief that there are things that they can do. You can't over-empathize with people. . . . It's much more assertive intervention."
The center's free antibody tests are administered on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 4 to 8. All clients are asked to complete an anonymous "health practices" questionnaire that eventually could help officials better predict who is likely to develop the syndrome.
If a person's blood tests negative, he or she is advised to return in several months for another test because it sometimes takes that long after an exposure for the antibody to appear.
For those who test positive--as do roughly one out of every five--there is an immediate retest, individual counseling and weekly support-group sessions to help them cope.
"We find out with some 'positives' that they just disappear," Brown said. "We don't see them; we don't know where they go. They just withdraw someplace."
Brown is a doctor of political science, not medicine. And his methods are more spontaneous than disciplined. But those who work with him say he is well suited for what is an emotionally draining job offering only spiritual reward.
"He is absolutely the most brilliant, dynamic individual I've gotten to work with," said Ray Kincade, a registered nurse who coordinates the center's testing program with the Long Beach Health Department. "Mike's approach is very client-oriented, and he has an ability to get right to the crux of identifying the value of the test results" in each client's case.