TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
Longtime HIV survivor
lives out his dreams
By TJ Sullivan
Ventura County Star
Doug Halter was screaming north on the Grapevine in the eerily tall shadows of dawn with nothing but road and horizon ahead when he realized he was probably going to die of AIDS.
It was Dec. 15, 1990, and he was in his Acura with two friends, about an hour outside of Ventura County on Interstate 5. He cradled his cellular telephone between ear and shoulder and gripped the wheel as he listened to the voice of the mother of his partner, 26-year-old Randy Morrison. She was telling him what he was racing to avoid hearing over the phone.
Randy Morrison had just died in a hospital bed at the University of California, Davis. Like Halter, Morrison had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"I think I sped up," said Halter, who was 29 in 1990, "and I was screaming in disbelief. His mother started yelling at me to pull over."
The same pleas came from the car's two passengers — Rick Fitzgerald, a friend who planned the night before to make the trip to the hospital; and Darlene Gardner, a neighbor in downtown Ventura who had been watering her garden in her nightgown when she saw the two men climbing into the car at 5 a.m.
Gardner joined them on a moment's notice, still in her nightgown.
Randy was dying.
And then Randy was dead.
Halter, now 41, looked back on the experience Saturday, World AIDS Day, from a rare perspective. Not only has his health improved since 1990, but he is more successful in business than he's ever been. More important than any of that, however, is his status as an HIV patient. Doug Halter is among the longest known survivors of the virus in the world.
He never could have imagined it in those terrified minutes on the interstate that December morning in 1990. At that point he saw the end, not a beginning.
He pulled off the highway at an exit, but stayed seated behind the wheel even after his friends crawled out to pace and sob.
"I guess I was too in the moment," Halter said this past week. "It took me15 minutes to get out of the car."
Until that day, Halter had been in denial. He didn't want to admit to the world he was gay, let alone HIV positive. He felt ashamed and hopeless.
Halter and Morrison had known of their infections since the winter of 1987, and judging by the test results each likely contracted it through sexual contact long before they met each other. They got it before 1986, when the Human Immunodeficiency Virus was given its name, and possibly before 1982, when doctors decided to call the disease AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Before that it had been called GRIDS, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. In its earliest days it was dubbed "gay pneumonia."
The AIDS test Halter and Morrison took in 1987 was just a responsible step, to join the effort, to be sure. Neither had any reason to believe he'd been infected. So, when they went for the results, it wasn't even a point of conversation. They assumed they'd be told they were negative, get a lecture on safe sex, and be sent on their way.
But it didn't happen that way. The male nurse took Halter to a private office, put his hand on Halter's and said that word.
Halter knew what it meant but thought surely there must have been a mistake. He spelled his name. He recited his Social Security number. He demanded someone check again.
"I didn't even know anybody who was HIV positive," Halter said.
Then he stood in the parking lot for half an hour wishing he could go home, get back in bed and wake up to find it had been a dream. Instead, he drove to work.
"That's the day I got hooked on talk radio because music made me think too much," he said.
Halter was young, in his mid-20s, laying the foundation for his life. He had just purchased his first house. He had a good job. His parents were proud of him. What would they think if he told them he was diagnosed with a disease that was being portrayed on the news as a "gay disease"? They didn't even know he was gay.
He got tested again, still in denial. But his personal physician was hardly as compassionate as the public health official. The doctor insisted nervously that Halter pick up his file and go.
"He said: 'I don't want this file anywhere near my office,' " Halter remembered.
Halter took a similar viewpoint. He didn't want the thought of AIDS anywhere in his mind. And so, he tried to push it away.
He let a year pass before he even consulted a doctor about treatment, and then only did so because of the coaxing of friends.
When he introduced Morrison, whom he loved very much, he called him his friend — not his partner.
When he talked about their disease, he said, "HIV positive" — not AIDS — as though that would help distance the horror.
"We were always going through the emotions, but I never thought we would die from it," he said. "When one of us would start getting sick, in my mind I'd think that isn't what they meant by being sick. It was something worse than that."
At one point, when Morrison was very sick and in a hospital emergency room, Halter hastily told the doctor, "He's HIV positive" only to have Morrison rip the oxygen mask from his face and yell, "Doug, I have AIDS!"
But there in the car, as Morrison's mother's voice faded to static after relaying that her son was dead, reality slammed into Halter's brain and heart. His brown eyes went red. His knees became weak.
"That was a huge turning point in my life," Halter said. "I felt like I was dying piece by piece as I was there in the car. I was 29 years old. My partner was 26."
He drifted for a few months, guided by friends. But when he emerged from mourning, he decided to make dreams come true with the time he had left. Believing that he could only count months, and not years, into the future, he was relieved of the fear of failure that might have inhibited him before.
First, he built a house — fighting City Hall all the way — realizing an 11-bedroom, seven-bath structure with ocean views in downtown Ventura. In it, he hung reminders of the struggle with which he and thousands of AIDS sufferers live, including several paintings by Richard Peterson's People Living With AIDS series. No longer was he pushing the idea away. He was surrounding himself with it.
The back patio of the house overlooks the house he lived in with Randy Morrison.
"I had always dreamed about building a house on a hill," Halter said, explaining that he accomplished it by including several rental units to cover the cost of the bank loans.
Along the way, Halter also sought competent treatment and discovered that an old friend, Dr. R. Scott Hitt, had dedicated his career to fighting AIDS. Halter went to see him.
Hitt soon became chairman of then-President Clinton's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Because of his assistance, Halter was signed up for a drug trial in 1994, a trial that saved his life.
It involved a new drug, later named Crixivan, which was believed to reduce the virus. Nothing was needed more at that point. Halter had a dangerously low count of T-cells, the infection-fighting cells that in a healthy person number between 800 and 1,200. His count was 25.
"Every piece of dust in my eye became a sty," he said. "Every pimple became a boil."
But the Crixivan turned that around. Combined in a cocktail of about 50 pills a day, the drug pushed Halter's T-cell count to more than 200 within a few months.
Today he takes a cocktail of about 20 pills each day, a complex dosage of dos and don'ts. One drug he has to take twice. Three must be taken three times. Two can't be taken together. Some are taken after meals. One, the Crixivan, must be taken on an empty stomach.
"One of my worst nightmares is waking up when I'm on vacation and thinking, 'Oh my God, I didn't bring my drugs,' " he said.
The cost of the collection is about $2,800 a month, a tab that's provided by a federal government program that covers only the cost of the drugs. It's essential, Halter said, because his former medical insurance provider dropped him as a result of his AIDS diagnosis.
This year, Halter celebrated his 41st birthday and became one of the longest survivors of HIV in the world. Considering that he likely contracted HIV at the start of the epidemic in the early 1980s, he is truly a rare individual. But it's a distinction that comes with a Midas-like curse. Living longer has meant that he's watched more friends die.
Survival's side-effect is guilt.
Halter soothes himself with the consolation that he hasn't wasted the years.
Besides the various organizations and groups he belongs to (he's currently the chairman of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival), he's opened two businesses —Villa Tasca and Bella Saponi in downtown Ventura. He co-founded the Laurel Theater. And he has helped shape the redevelopment of the city of Ventura with a contribution so significant that he is being honored as "Citizen of the Year" by the Ventura Chamber of Commerce.
And in addition to all of that, during the past eight years he has visited college and high school classrooms to talk about his disease through a program called Positively Speaking.
He tells his listeners what the means of infection are — unprotected sex and sharing needles or syringes.
Garage tattoo parlors, where young men and women share needles to stain their skin, have become a common way to catch it. Drug use is another.
He emphasizes that it is not a "gay" disease, that more heterosexuals are currently living with AIDS than homosexuals.
He explains how 800,000 Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS since it was identified as a disease.
He compares it to the 50,000 who died in Vietnam.
"These are people in the prime of their lives — 20s to 40s," he said.
Death is very much a part of the story he tells — he faces it so much more directly than he did that day 11 years ago in the car on the Grapevine.
"When we separate death from life … we devalue life," he said. "Death is a part of life."