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Dan Turner; Offered Hope to Those With AIDS

June 06, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Turner, who survived eight years with AIDS, becoming in the process a personification of hope to those with that fatal disease, has lost his historic struggle.

The one-time playwright and actor was 42 when he died Monday in San Francisco, ending a battle that had begun in February, 1982, when doctors--who then were seeing the undiagnosed illness for the first time--were able to tell him only that he had "gay cancer."

Thanks in part to an inexplicable suppression system that kept in check the AIDS virus that normally proves fatal in a few years or even months, Turner lived to help found many support groups.

Among them were the AIDS Foundation, People With AIDS and the AIDS Switchboard.

"He was a shining symbol," said longtime friend Maura Nolan. "When Dan would walk into the hospital room of some person afflicted with AIDS, it was as if hope walked though the door."

Turner was one of the first two patients diagnosed at San Francisco General Hospital, before the disease was called acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He was told only that he had a rare cancer, Kaposi's sarcoma, which had surfaced as five spots on his ankle.

Despite the public attention that was to accompany his lengthy fight for survival, Turner continued to consider himself "ordinary."

But, as he told The Times late in 1987, he also became keenly aware of his responsibilities to others to keep on living.

"I worry sometimes about getting hit by a car," he said, only half in jest.

He traveled and gave his message of optimism and determination to others, and was featured on television in a 1987 documentary called "The Fighting Edge," in which experts discussed how people such as Turner could continue to lead productive lives.

Turner attributed his survival not just to his physiological fortunes but to his attitude.

Years earlier, while working as an intern to playwright Tennessee Williams, Turner was diagnosed with hepatitis. He was devastated.

But he saw Williams--by then aging and in failing health himself--continuing to awaken at 4 a.m. daily to write. And it was from the author of "Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," that Turner drew hope.

"I had been perpetuating (my hepatitis) through this negative mind trip. . . . From then on when my mind said: 'You can't do it,' I'd say: 'But that's just your mind.' "

In 1982, recovered from the hepatitis, he was to utilize that mind-set for a second and final time.

He quit his job as a writer to encourage other people with AIDS. Despite a chronic cough and minor health problems, he increased his regimen of exercise, working out at a gym and climbing San Francisco's hilly streets.

Born a Catholic, he continued daily prayer and earned a master's degree in social work while continuing to write plays.

He also tried many therapies, including injections of interferon, acupuncture, psychic healing and meditation and diet.

"Dan played an important role for HIV-infected people across the world," said Holly Smith of the Shanti Project, an AIDS support group. "He showed people they can live, they can accomplish things after a diagnosis. He lived every moment."

Doctors had encouraged him to vent his feelings about his disease, be it conversation or creating.

"The sure sign of someone who's going to kick the bucket early," he said in interviews, "is someone who turns inward, keeps the fear to themselves. . . ."

Survivors include his mother, two brothers and a sister.

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