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A Resolve to Live

Lisa Howard hasn't let the AIDS virus rob her of a full life. She cherishes every day with her children and husband and remains hopeful for a cure.

July 26, 1999|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lisa Howard and I could be friends. We're both in our late 30s, are celebrating our 10th wedding anniversaries this summer, have kids of similar ages, drive Ford Explorers, and love long runs and good coffee.

During our college years, we both hung out in Southern California beach towns with surfer friends and worked as waitresses during the summer. But our lives took a different turn in the summer of 1983. Lisa traveled to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and had a brief romance with a man who worked at a local Chart House restaurant. She unwittingly returned home with something to remember him by: the AIDS virus.

And now, like me, she's part of a long-term study comparing women with HIV to those without. The results of the study, led by researchers at UCLA and Drew University medical centers, will be published later this month in the American Psychological Assn. Journal. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the study, which began in 1994, is the first to examine the long-term psychosocial issues confronting HIV-positive women.

I learned of the study when I got a call from someone looking for healthy women to participate. The recruiter said I would be paired with a woman of similar demographics--white, married with children, educated, financially secure, except she'd be HIV positive. I agreed but secretly doubted they would ever find anyone like that.

They did, however, and several months later I joined a group of 500 women I was not to meet--about 60% had the HIV virus. Known simply as study participant No. 1089, I traveled to Drew Medical Center once a year for five years. Researchers took blood and urine samples, conducted memory and other tests, and asked me lots of questions, some so personal they made both me and the examiner blush.

After each visit, the same refrain ran through my mind: There's someone who comes to this place who's just like me, except . . . . Though the UCLA-Drew study continues, my part of it is over. But, as a writer, I couldn't let that be the end of the story. I had questions. I wanted to meet this woman whom I had wondered about for so many years.

She Resents Being Considered Sick

Lisa and I had breakfast recently at a coffee shop near her Westchester home. I looked hard into the face of this woman so much like me, anxious to learn all I could about her life, how she copes with her disease and how she is different from me. One of the first things I learned was how she resents the thought that she is different. While she knows the study is important, she rails against the idea that researchers are comparing the "sick" to the "healthy."

"I go into those tests and try extra hard," she says with the toughness that's brought her so far. "They want to prove that I'm less on top of things than the 'others,' and I want to prove them wrong." Already I admire her.

Gail Wyatt, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School and lead investigator for the study, says society has a stereotype of the woman with HIV as "poor, of color, homeless, uneducated, probably drug-addicted, single and with poor health care access." While acknowledging that the profile fits a lot of women with HIV-AIDS, many more than you'd expect are like Lisa Howard--white, married, educated, with medical insurance.

Though Lisa is not the norm, neither is she the exception. But she is exceptional in her willingness to share her story. She's beyond keeping her HIV status a secret and wants to educate others.

She Was Diagnosed at the Age of 22

Over sausage and eggs and coffee mocha, she told me her story, with matter-of-fact directness and the type of honesty usually found only in young children and very old men.

Lisa Howard grew up in an upscale neighborhood of Palos Verdes as the daughter of a prominent physician. Fifteen years ago, when AIDS made the cover of Time magazine, her father decided he wanted all four children tested for HIV.

"He knew his girls were a little wild," Lisa says. She doesn't say "and beautiful," but she is: tall, with a lean dancer's body and blond hair pinned casually up on her head; her yellow sundress shows off her green eyes and tan.

Her father gave her the bad news. "It took a long time to accept. I didn't know anyone who had AIDS. I didn't know how I got it. I'd never used IV drugs. I was 22 and doing what all my friends had been doing: going to school and playing."

Relying on his physician background, her father took an officious role, declaring that they would stay informed, get the best medical care and stick together.

Six years later, she learned from an acquaintance how she probably contracted the virus: Her St. Thomas sweetheart had died of AIDS.

Like Lisa, the majority (70%) of HIV-positive women in the study got the virus from a spouse or boyfriend.

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