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Seeds of hope

March 15, 1997


Staff Writer

Diagnosed with AIDS, Ric had some qualms about planting tree peonies in his Chinese-style garden.

The ancient plants, noted for their beautiful silky-petaled and fragrant flowers, take at least two years to blossom. Ric, a 37-year-old Hagerstown man who asked that his last name not be used, was afraid he wouldn't live that long.

All that was six years ago. Like many AIDS patients today, Ric has found new hope in the so-called AIDS cocktails.

The treatment combines AZT-like drugs with protease inhibitors, a new class of medicines that became available in the fall of 1995, said Dr. John Newby, president of Washington County AIDS Coalition.


The cocktails are making a huge difference in the quality of Ric's life and those of others who are HIV-positive.

Diagnosed HIV-positive in June of 1989, Ric later developed AIDS. He tried to work in his garden, but could handle only about a half hour's labor before needing a nap. He was sick and said he felt as if he were 90 years old.

The new medications have improved his health and his outlook. "I don't think the cure is too far away," he said.

Protease inhibitors block the enzyme created by HIV when it reproduces, preventing the virus from duplicating.

Although the virus may hide in the lymph system, the brain or elsewhere, the inhibitors lessen the amount of HIV found in the blood.

Sometimes the virus becomes undetectable, according to Dr. Liza Solomon, Director of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene AIDS Administration in Baltimore.

"These drugs apparently are killing the virus," she said.

The combination therapies deliver a one-two punch, attacking the virus at two sites - in two completely different ways, Newby said. He compares the assault to disabling a telephone not just by cutting the cord at the handset, but also by knocking out the switches at the phone company.

This is not a cure or a vaccine, Newby said, and the drugs don't work for everyone. But the inhibitors are an exciting development in AIDS research, he said.

If the viral count can be kept low enough, the immune system can rebuild itself, Newby said.

If suppressive therapy can be maintained, people stay well and can lead reasonably normal lives.

Newby compared this future scenario to living with any chronic, potentially fatal disease - diabetes for example.

Living with these drugs is not easy, said another area man whose AIDS was diagnosed in 1992.

The man, who asked not to be identified, is president of Southcentral Pennsylvania AIDS Coalition. He has taken several medications, including protease inhibitors. He says the drugs' side effects, including diarrhea, chills, fever and other flu-like symptoms, are not uncommon.

A person on the drugs must plan his days around a drug schedule - knowing when to take which pills and whether to take them on an empty or full stomach.

"You really have to be committed to taking the protease inhibitors,'' he said. "There are a lot of patient decisions."

Hagerstown physician Martin Gallagher said he tells his patients that once they start taking the medication, they can't take drug holidays.

No small price

These drugs are not inexpensive.

Solomon estimates that retail costs for medications could run $15,000 a year. Financial assistance is available through Maryland AIDS Drug Assistance Administration Program.

"Because we feel so positive about these drugs, we want to make sure people have access to these drugs," Solomon said.

The combination therapies are changing people's lives.

Ric was on disability leave from work for 13 months. Leaving work was devastating, he said. He said he felt depressed, especially during winter when it seemed everybody else was working. Lack of money was another problem.

"You know that you're being taken out of society and the work environment to die," he said.

Ric went back to work in August. His weight, which had dropped from 154 pounds to 128, has come back up to where he wants it - 147 pounds, with the help of steroid injections.

He's planning for retirement now, and still gardening. He transplanted his tree peonies last Sunday and expects to see their eight-inch pink blossoms again in April.

These plants, whose ancestors graced the gardens of Chinese emperors, were written about as early as the fourth century. They live a long, long time - some for hundreds of years.

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