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BEST FRIENDS : Volunteer and AIDS Patient Help Each Other Understand

January 08, 1988|DENNIS MCLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The night Jeff was admitted to the hospital after collapsing in the living room of his Costa Mesa apartment, he was so sick with pneumonia and a variety of other ailments that he had to be carried into the emergency room.

"I thought I was going to die," Jeff said in a soft Southern drawl.

Before the night was over, the 28-year-old, Georgia-born machinist's worst fear was confirmed: He had AIDS.

"I was scared as hell," recalled Jeff, who asked that his real name not be used because the company he works for does not know he has acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "I immediately called my lover. I needed someone just to hold onto and tell me it was going to be OK. . . . I don't see how a lot of people make it if they don't have anyone, or they're rejected."

Despite the support his partner of eight years provided that night in June, 1986, it didn't take long for Jeff's diagnosis to severely strain their relationship.

"A lot of fears were there because, here I've come down with this disease, he might have it also," Jeff said. "And the fear of being alone was part of it. Eight years--that's a long time to invest in a person and love and care for and all of a sudden thinking it's going to be taken away from you.

"And trying to understand how this could happen to me and not to him--that was the No. 1 thing with our problems. Our relationship has been monogamous. But it came down to: 'What have you been doing?' "

While still in the hospital, Jeff talked to a social worker who told him about the "buddy program" offered by the Costa Mesa-based AIDS Services Foundation. Through the program, trained volunteers are assigned to visit AIDS patients. The volunteers--some gay, some straight--do everything from grocery shopping to driving the patient to the doctor. Most of all, they offer a sympathetic ear.

Although Jeff and his partner continued to work on their problems, "I just really needed somebody to talk to, just basically to pour my heart out," Jeff said.

The day after Jeff was released from the hospital, Fred Escarcega of Santa Ana was out riding his bicycle when he stopped by the AIDS Services Foundation office and encountered the then-director of services, Steve Peskind.

Escarcega, a gay 25-year-old college student and waiter, had been a volunteer in the foundation's buddy program for three months. The AIDS patient he had been helping had died a month earlier.

"Steve told me about this new guy," Escarcega recalled. "He asked me if I was ready to get involved again. I said, 'Sure.' "

Escarcega showed up at Jeff's door the next day. Still weak and feverish from his bout with pneumonia, Jeff was not exactly in the best shape for meeting anyone. His weight had dropped drastically, from 128 to 92 pounds, and he had a jaundiced look. As a result of medication, his skin was flaking and his hair was falling out. Worse, he had developed such a bad case of herpes while in the hospital that, he says, "My mouth looked like somebody had dragged me down the freeway."

"If Fred hadn't been interested in being a volunteer," Jeff said, "that should have been enough to scare him away. But it didn't."

Indeed, over the past 18 months--through the emotional highs and lows, through the setbacks and improvements, through the days Jeff feels energetic and the days he feels "like somebody beat me with a stick"--a friendship was born.

Jeff and Escarcega dropped the word "buddy," a term they both felt uncomfortable using, last year.

"We're just best friends," Escarcega said.

"He is," said Jeff, "the best friend I have in California. In a short time, we've grown close and confided in each other our innermost fears. . . ."

Seated at the dining room table in Jeff's apartment one morning recently, Jeff and Escarcega were reminiscing about the day they met. The tall and lanky Escarcega, wearing a navy blue Michigan sweat shirt and gray sweat pants, had come over to drive Jeff to his doctor's appointment at an Anaheim hospital.

On that first day, the soft-spoken Escarcega recalled with a laugh, "I think I spoke 15 words."

"He just sat there and listened," said Jeff, by nature the more talkative of the two. "We started with how I felt, and it went from that to stories of my history and stuff. I come from a sort of lulu family--they're definitely book material. We talked about what was going to happen to me and about how bad I felt I was treated at the hospital."

In particular, he remembers the night he was admitted. After various tests had been conducted, the emergency room doctor returned to his side.

"He came back with so much rubber on, all I could see of him were his eyes," Jeff said. "It scared the hell out of me because when he came in the first time he had none of this (protective clothing) on. It really upset me. I felt like, 'Oh, my God, what's going on here?'--that maybe any second I just may keel over dead, or they might isolate me forever."

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