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Family seeks to educate others about HIV and AIDS

November 27, 1998

Family seeks to educate others about HIV and AIDS

[world AIDS day]

World AIDS DayBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - For Ian Gibson-Smith, testing positive for HIV was not a death sentence, but a stepping stone for educating others about the dangers of unprotected sex and drug abuse.

Gibson-Smith, 36, of Martinsburg, W.Va., has been living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus for 12 years. His partner at the time was extremely sick, the result of what was later to be diagnosed as advanced AIDS, and Gibson-Smith had been battling what he thought was a "vicious flu." Immediately after testing positive for HIV, he started taking AZT, the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to suppress the replication of the virus.

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Gibson-Smith waited a few months to tell his family, who he says reacted with stunned horror, but did not pass judgment or try to pin blame on anyone.

"My parents were unbelievably supportive," says Gibson-Smith of Valerie and Clifford Smith of Shepherdstown.

"Nobody turned away," says Valerie Smith in reference to other family members and friends.

"At the beginning, that was a death sentence," Smith says of her son's diagnosis. "Mothers can always fix things, but you can't fix this," she says.

Smith decided to learn everything she could about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). She participated in an educational program for parents of those with HIV/AIDS sponsored by Whitman-Walker Clinic, a nonprofit, volunteer-based lesbian and gay community health organization that serves Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan area. She and her husband moved to Shepherdstown two years ago from Washington, D.C.

Smith eventually ran one of Whitman-Walker's houses for those in need and served on the clinic's foundation. She also organized a program that raises money so families can stay together after a relative is diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, and participated in a lot of marches that raised awareness about HIV/AIDS. She will speak Tuesday, Dec. 1, at the World AIDS Day observance at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown.

In 1990, Gibson-Smith's partner died. He grieved, and then he got angry, angry enough to wage a war against HIV.

"If you believe you're going to die, you will," says Gibson-Smith. "I've been extremely aggressive about my treatment. I read staggering amounts of literature on the subject."

Gibson-Smith volunteered at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and for several other organizations. He also carried the Olympic torch in 1996 in the nation's capital after being nominated by those who appreciated the time he gave to others. He moved to Martinsburg 3 1/2 years ago from Washington, D.C., and he and his mother are now members of AIDS Network of the Tri-State.

Gibson-Smith takes 30 pills a day, down from the 60 he once took. He visits a doctor in Washington, D.C., every three months, and his medication costs more than $20,000 a year.

He says he is one of the lucky ones because his insurance covers many of his expenses, but the majority of HIV/AIDS victims can't afford the coverage, much less the medications.

Gibson-Smith said the most important thing that can be done to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS is to educate people of all ages.

While promoting abstinence is helpful, particularly among the younger generation, Gibson-Smith says, "The reality is, kids are having sex," and they need to learn about having it safely, with protection.

He uses his experience to spread the message that prevention is the only way to avoid exposure to HIV.

"I don't want anyone else to go through what I've gone through. You don't want to go through this, it's hideous," says Gibson-Smith.

There are activities that can be done in moderation, but having unprotected sex and abusing drugs are not among them, Smith says.

It's worth the 30 minutes of embarrassment parents feel when talking to their children about sex and drugs, Smith says.

"You have to talk to your children," she says.




[world AIDS day]

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