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Man with HIV serves as 'wake-up call' to others

April 27, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

On Oct. 13, 2003, Tom Donohue received the news that changed everything. About a week after a routine physical, his doctor called him and said he wanted to discuss his test results.

"I knew what he was going to tell me. I curled up and cried hysterically," he recalled Monday afternoon to an audience of about 50 Penn State Mont Alto students and staff members.

He and his partner drove to the doctor's office - "the longest drive of my life" - where Donohue was told that he was HIV-positive.

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"I was scared, and I'm still scared," he said.

"Decisions I made in the past about intimacy were irresponsible. The choices I made determined my fate. One moment of passion, of irresponsibility, could take me to my grave," said Donohue, who appeared to struggle with his emotions at times.

"That phone call changed my world and everything about me. It was my wake-up call. Let me be your wake-up call," he said.

Founder of Who's Positive, Donohue is now a national HIV awareness speaker.

Donohue filed in and sat with the audience, and after the facilitator opened the program, he stood up and started talking.

Wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt, the State College, Pa., resident said, "I look, act and dress like you. No one of you would know I'm positive if I hadn't told you."

The audience sat in silence as Donohue told how his life has changed.

Attendees were given sealed cards representing results of HIV tests as they entered the auditorium. Donohue instructed them to open the cards part way through the program; several had "positive" results.

Audience members' reactions included:

"Scared. I have my whole future ahead of me, and that might really change."

"Shame. How would I tell my partner?"

"Doubt. I never thought this would happen to me."

"I'd have to tell my wife."

Holding up a magazine ad for a medication for HIV, Donohue read a long list of distressing side effects.

"Does this sound like something you want to buy? This is my reality. This is what is going to keep me alive," he said.

Donohue's viral load (the amount of HIV in his system) is low enough and his CD4 (T-cell) count is high enough that he does not need to take medication at this point.

Donohue's mother attended his Who's Positive presentation for the first time last week, he said. She commented to the audience, who did not know her identity, that she was scared because she may have to bury somebody she loves.

Donohue turns 25 Wednesday. "Am I going to hit 50? There are great medications, but I'm always going to have to fight this," he said.

The average time for developing full-blown AIDS is eight to 12 years, he said.

Donohue recommended being frank with sexual partners, asking, "Who have you slept with? Were you safe? This could be a test for a relationship. Say, 'Let's go get tested together.'"

On Sunday evening, a friend told him he thinks he infected Donohue. "What do you say? What's done is done. Never ponder the past. We can't change it.

"Apply lessons of the past to the future. I told him it's OK, we're dealing with the same thing. Am I supposed to hate him? What would that get me?"

Donohue said he takes responsibility for his condition. "It was my decision to be unsafe. I should have protected myself," he said.

He held up a condom. "It's so simple. If only I'd have used one, it could've changed everything. I'm looking into the past for you."

A month after Donohue's diagnosis, his partner, who had promised not to leave him, cheated on him and left. "Now that made me mad," he said. "After everything we'd gone through, he finds it easy to go and hook up with someone. He could be positive. It was a slap in the face."

Donohue's presentation was sponsored by the department of Residence Life and the ALLIES club (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Support and Education).

Lindsay Lebo, president of ALLIES and a Mont Alto junior, said Donohue's presentation would educate even students who did not attend.

"Students don't think about HIV being here and affecting this campus," she said. "There are probably multiple people here with HIV that no one knows about. Tom gave a face to it, and allows people to see the reality. This is a small campus; it will get around, people will talk about what they heard."

For further information or to contact Donohue, go to www.whospositive.com

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