Home News Local news Ceremony Brings To Mind Early Victim of AIDS

Ceremony Brings To Mind Early Victim of AIDS


Dec. 1, 2005 –– In the late summer of 1979, my friend died at a hospital in Puerto Rico. He didn't know what killed him, and neither did we.
After complaining over a course of months of unaccountable ailments, at work one day here in the Virgin Islands, he simply doubled over in terrible stomach pain. He didn't want to go the hospital, and we couldn't convince him to go.
His family later took him to the hospital, but that was the beginning of the end. He had developed a wracking cough. This was before anyone knew of HIV/AIDS.
My friend was in the St. Thomas hospital for weeks upon end. Every day he would ask his doctors what was wrong, and every day they had to give him the same answer; they didn't know. They had tested him for everything from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to whooping cough.
My friend was male and he was gay. He had visited Haiti several times, and had Haitian friends. After the disease was named in the early 80s, Haiti was found to have a high incidence of AIDS. (Today Haiti has the highest incidence of AIDS outside of Africa, according to a World Bank site.)
My friend finally left the St. Thomas hospital only to be transferred to a hospital in Puerto Rico.
He had lost about 35 pounds. His round happy face with his little black moustache was now gaunt. He wasn't the friend we had known. And still, he wondered aloud what was wrong. "If only I knew, it would make it so much more easier to live with," he said.
We last saw him in the San Juan hospital, a few days before he died. We had brought him some goat water and a bottle of sea moss from the Doris King food truck at the airport. His favorites. He tried to thank us, but he could hardly eat.
My friend was very likely the territory's first case of HIV/AIDS.
There have been 862 cases since, out of which 344 have died.
Thursday night a small crowd gathered at Emancipation Garden in a candlelight ceremony to honor friends lost to HIV/AIDS, and to pray for those now living with the disease.
Standing erect in the Emancipation Garden gazebo, the petite Mistress of Ceremonies Yvonne Washington-Turay, of the International Gospel Center of St. Thomas, greeted the crowd and asked for a moment of silence.
"A minute is a long time," she said after, "and so it has been for the last 25 years we have been suffering from this disease."
The evening featured song, sermon and speech.
Taetia Phillips-Dorsett, director of the V.I. Health Department's STD-HIV-TB program, elaborated on those years with a sobering statistic: for the third year in a row, she said, the Virgin Islands has the highest rate of HIV in the United States, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. "Nineteen cases have been reported this year," she said.
In contrast to the somber figures of the World Aids Day event, the garden was already decorated with Christmas lights. The lignum vitae trees bore the traditional greeting of decorations from the island's schools, hung with bright ribbons and candy canes.
The Red Cross distributed the candles in cups for the ceremony, and they added something else –– Lollipop condoms, which come on a stick.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said we all are affected by HIV/AIDS, but the community has a problem. "People in the Virgin Islands don't want to talk openly about it." He said it's a three-pronged problem: a culture of suppressing reality; a belief that it's OK because drugs can cure it; and an avoidance of the issue which keeps people from getting tested.
Malone said he personally had been affected by the disease. "I had an uncle who battled the disease and died in 1987," he said. "It's even more alarming today, with all the information we have, people still suffer from ignorance."
Malone, gazing out at the attentive but sparse audience of 50 or so, said "I wish there were more people here tonight, but nonetheless I hope that word will spread out of the garden tonight."
Though Thursday night's program was more extensive than year's past, only a handful more people attended.
The apathy in the community toward the disease is evidenced by each year's attendance. In 2004, about a dozen came; in 2003 it was about 25.
The group who gathered Thursday evening was treated to moving performance by some talented and earnest youngsters.
Tenese Lockhart, a 15-year-old Charlotte Amalie High School honors student, read her winning essay from the 2005 World AIDS Day contest. She listed the ABC's of prevention: A is abstinence; B is be careful; and C is use condoms.
The voices of the Unlimited Praise Seventh Day Adventist Choir roused everyone to their feet with a spirited rendition of "I Almost Let Go." Choir director Rhona Pinney-Simon led the group of about 35. "We actually have 75 in the choir," she said. The group is no stranger to the garden; the choir is one of the mainstays of the yearly Christmas morning of song.
Mr. and Miss Night Out of 2005, Granville Smith Jr. and Sondria Pemberton, wearing proper crowns, did a solemn rendition of the World Aids Day Balm in Gilead poem "Who Will Break the Silence?" "We don't know who they are," the young duo said. "They are God."
After a series of sermons by pastors from different churches, the evening concluded with the candle lighting ceremony led by Rev. Wycherley Gumbs of the Trinity Methodist Church.

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