AIDS ribbon
Photo: Amanda Rohde/iStockphoto
It hasn’t been easy—or pretty. One of them has to inject herself in the stomach twice a day. The other came so close to dying that her father arranged—and paid for—her funeral. But Rae Lewis-Thornton and Sharon Lund, who were both infected with AIDS in 1983, when the disease was a virtual death sentence, are still here, still fighting, still working to help other women (now a quarter of all new cases) avoid their fate. And they have something to teach all of us about the art, craft, and sheer cussedness of hanging in.
She must be dead, Sharon Lund. I interviewed her—when, 1992? She’d already been HIV positive for nine years. Last time we talked, that virus was diabolically bungee jumping her in and out of her grave. The woman had three T cells, for God’s sake.
So when the phone rings and a woman says, “Hi, it’s Sharon Lund,” my thoughts start splashing around in a mad, frantic backstroke until I finally manage: “Where are you?”

“I’m living in San’s beautiful.” She practically sings it in that upbeat, holistic-healer voice of hers, as I try to wrap my mind around the living part.

“And your health?”

“Never been better,” she tra-la-las.

“Are you living alone?” (Again, the living.)

Yes, but actually, there’s someone in her life, a younger man. ... And she’s written a book, her daughter’s great, the two of them are coming to New York...

At the time I wrote about Sharon in 1992, women made up 14 percent of Americans with AIDS, most casualties of IV drug use. Today, according to the latest statistics, women account for more than a quarter of all new HIV/AIDS cases; four out of five of them from plain old sex.

Very few female patients have been at it as long as Sharon, who was infected at the beginning of the epidemic, when there wasn’t a single drug available and AIDS meant dying awfully and soon. As in: You could probably count the years on one hand. After hearing from Sharon, however, I met another long-term survivor, Rae Lewis-Thornton, who figured out she’s been HIV positive since 1983. Both women—one white, one black—were blessed with the kind of looks that can make a man forget how to tie his oxfords and an unrelenting strength drawn, perhaps, from the fact that when they learned they had the disease, they’d already made it through worse. That grit has enabled them to hold themselves up through the worst of pain and social stigma, even to stare death in the face and say, “Not now, sorry: I’ve got other plans.”

AIDS experts will tell you that women like Sharon and Rae, by participating in studies and speaking out publicly, have brightened the prognosis for the newly infected. But most of all, these two are heroes for fighting what was thought to be unfightable: They’re models of resilience, whatever the difficulty might be.

Six weeks later she was dead, Dan Rather’s voice trundled in on his 1986 CBS News special AIDS Hits Home.


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