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My Passage Through AIDS : A Prominent Los Angeles Businessman Reflects on His Life and His Fate

August 14, 1987|HANK E. KOEHN | Hank Koehn, 54, chairman of the Trimtab Consulting Group, is a nationally known futurist and lecturer and the former vice president and director of the futures research division of Security Pacific Bank . Koehn, who wrote this account two weeks ago, today is bedridden and under a nurse's care four days a week.

My world came to an end in the San Jose air terminal on Friday, Feb. 27.

I had been in the San Jose area on a two-day business trip, which like most of my out-of-town visits consisted of speaking engagements. While waiting for my return flight to Los Angeles, I made a phone call.

A week earlier my doctor had convinced me that I should have a test for the human immuno-deficiency virus. Like other men, I had initially rejected the idea. I suppose, like many others, I was avoiding the information that I already suspected. That Friday, my call was to find out the test results. The doctor informed me they were positive.

I knew then that I had AIDS.

With almost clinical detachment, I made an appointment to visit him early the following week. I had been having difficulty using my left hand, and for several weeks had assumed it was due to a possible pulled shoulder muscle. At my doctor's office at the end of that visit, I almost casually mentioned the problem.

A Brain Scan

After several questions, he said the difficulty could be an indication of a serious problem; it seemed there might be brain damage as a result of the now-active AIDS virus in my body. Within minutes, a magnetic resonance scan of my brain was scheduled for the next afternoon.

The scan consisted of placing my head and shoulders inside a tubelike device that seemed to belong on a "Star Trek" movie set. Within a day it would indicate that there was a lesion on the right side of my brain. The lesion, the doctor said, could be the result of a tumor or, more probably, a direct attack by the AIDS virus on my brain. His coolly efficient explanation transmitted a subconscious emotional message: I had a terminal condition. My future consisted of certain death.

I was to be hospitalized for a complete diagnosis. Much to my doctor's displeasure, I delayed entering the hospital while I turned over my client commitments to an associate and visited my attorney to arrange matters should I not leave the hospital alive. On the day I left home, I took a final look at my budding liquidambar tree and thought it highly probable I would never see it with all of its leaves.

I had not been in a hospital for more than 50 years, but it was not unpleasant. Still, the multitude of tests did little to change my outlook. They indicated that the brain lesion was due to a toxoplasmosis infection. This protozoan is usually present in all of us, but our immune systems keep it in check. In my case, the infection in my brain was slowly taking away my ability to use my left hand and arm. Dressing and daily living became a one-handed exercise.

On the day I was to leave the hospital, I had my first seizure. My arm and hand jumped around for about 15 seconds as a result of "short circuit" signals from the infected area of the brain. I was terrified.

I was told that this could become a common event (it did) and I received my first capsule of the drug Dilantin. I left the hospital convinced that my days among the living were indeed numbered. The doctors were surprised I was so calm, but I did not feel cheated and could therefore face my impending demise calmly. I resolved to get on with it, deciding two things: First, I most likely would not live beyond the end of the year; second, when I thought it was time to die, I would merely get into bed and stay there.

These feelings and an all-encompassing resignation remained with me for several weeks. I was calm in the face of an accepted certainty. I also decided I would no longer be able to work. For one thing, I couldn't bear the thought of having a seizure in front of a group in the middle of a lecture. But I also felt I would be rejected when word got out that I had AIDS. I was sure most of my clients would be appalled at learning about my choice of life style.

Once I decided to stop work, my feelings took two directions at once. First, I discovered I had lost self-worth; indeed, I found I had little personal identity outside my work life. Second, I lost interest in the outside world. As a futurist and social observer, I had spent most of my time watching and reading about change. Now, I found I had empty days. To fill the time, I began to sleep all day, and all night. I would stare at nothing on the ceiling for many hours. Everything, including reading, became too much of an effort. Since my days were numbered, nothing seemed worthwhile.

In a way, it was all very comfortable; I was well cared for at home. In retrospect, the frightening fact was, I was very content doing nothing. And since I had a relatively strong personality, there was almost no one to challenge my deep feeling of resignation. It seemed the civilized approach to my remaining life.

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