Lawrence alum discusses life with AIDS -dlh

Amanda Loder

Chuck Erickson, ’03, had a story to tell his fellow Lawrentians last night with AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin worker Joe Brooks, ’03, at “HIV and AIDS: Breaking the Silence.” His story begins in an Ames, Iowa, hospital where *****– on June 16, 2004, at 11:30 a.m. *****– Erickson was diagnosed with AIDS. “I will never forget it for the rest of my life,” Erickson said in a phone interview Wednesday. According to Erickson, the doctor who diagnosed him was very “emotional” since, “I was the third person she had ever had to tell that to,” Erickson said.
The diagnosis came as a complete shock to Erickson. He had, in fact, been tested for HIV three months prior, and tested negative for the virus. Erickson had been hospitalized in May due to a case of bronchitis that developed into pneumonia. He had gone to the emergency room for treatment of a 105-degree fever that had not broken for several days. Eventually, Erickson was placed in the intensive care unit, where his fever eventually broke. While doctors had run a battery of tests, they had found no cause for Erickson’s medical difficulties until June 16, just as Erickson was preparing to leave the hospital.
Erickson’s case is unusual in that he was diagnosed with AIDS without ever having been diagnosed with HIV. The doctors in Ames discovered Erickson had AIDS when they counted his immune system’s T-cells. While the average person has 800-1200 T-cells, when Erickson was first tested, he had 16. Zero T-cells only occurs after death. For a diagnosis of HIV, a patient should consistently have a T-cell count of 200 or above, and for a diagnosis of AIDS, a patient consistently has a T-cell count below 200. Erickson’s case was so severe that his infectious disease specialist told him that if his body did not accept his various AIDS medications, Erickson would die within four weeks.
“I started planning life both ways, if I should live, and if I should die,” Erickson said. One of Erickson’s first orders of business was to call his brothers in the Phi Kappa Tau and Sinfonia fraternities. Three Phi Taus came to Ames to help Erickson over Fall term: Dan Pelzer, Patrick McEachern, and Peter Iversen.
“I got better … I’m doing much better,” Erickson said. After his recovery, Erickson contacted Phi Kappa Tau once again “because Phi Tau was looking for more outreach stuff and more community stuff,” Erickson said, “I really feel that HIV and AIDS have really been put on the backburner.”
As a case in point, Erickson cites the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which was signed into law by President Clinton. In theory, the program allows Americans with “minimal health insurance and/or low income” to have their HIV/AIDS drugs completely paid for by the federal government. According to Erickson, the program was intended to be funded forever, but he suspects that funding has diminished during the Bush administration.
The lack of funding basically forced Erickson to wait for the 10 Iowans ahead of him on the waiting list to die of AIDS. For the first few months, he paid for his medicine out-of-pocket, about $250 daily. “Essentially, I feel like the government has told me, ‘We don’t think you can be rehabilitated, so we don’t really care about you’,” Erickson said. The improvement in Erickson’s condition, however, has brought the cost of his medicine down to less than $50 per day, all of which is now covered by ADAP.
Although it is difficult living with AIDS, Erickson insists that the disease is not the “death sentence” it was in the 1980s. In fact, Erickson is in his last year of study for his master’s degree in student affairs from Iowa State University, and works two jobs on campus. “I have full plans to keep trucking on and I have full plans to get a Ph.D.,” Erickson said. “My dream is to eventually become a dean of students or a vice president of student affairs at a small college.” The only difference between his job prospects before he got AIDS and now, Erickson said, is that he must look for a jobs located near infectious disease specialists, who are generally found only in metropolitan areas.
Erickson believes that his message is particularly important to Lawrence students because, “You’re the future of the United States … so I want this to be part of the Lawrence education. Students need to find their passion in life, and remember that there are others who are not as fortunate as you, and find ways to help other people as best you can.