Joking and smiling in bright green Converse, one might never think there was anything “wrong” with Don Carrel. A K-State alumnus who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Carrel spoke to a group of students yesterday about his illness and precautions they could take to avoid the same fate.
Carrel was 35 years old when he found out that he had HIV. He traces his infection back to 1981, when he was dating a man whom he believes infected him. He got a call from someone, telling him that his past boyfriend was on his deathbed, dying of AIDS, in 1986. It was at this point that Carrel said he got tested for HIV.
He drove to Topeka where he found the nearest doctor who would test him for what, at the time, was a death sentence. Carrel found that he was positive.
“He said, ‘I suggest you get your affairs together,'” Carrel said. “My initial reaction was … I was doing about 140 miles per hour down the highway, headed for the ditch. I basically burst into tears because I thought, I can’t commit suicide … I said a prayer and said, ‘God, don’t let me die until Matthew [Carrel’s youngest son] is out of high school.'”
Carrel lived free of AIDS symptoms until 1995, which was extremely rare in a time of very little treatment and medication.
“I basically had nothing wrong with me for the first 14 years I had HIV,” Carrel said. “[Now] I have full-blown AIDS.”
In 1995, Carrel was hospitalized with an opportunistic infection. He weighed 119 pounds and his T cell count was zero. It was at this point that Carrel was diagnosed with AIDS. It was also at this point that he first dreamed of telling teenagers about the dangers of, and how to avoid, HIV and AIDS.
Carrel talked in depth about two friends he had in Manhattan who were HIV positive. Dennis Howard, a former K-State professor, was described as Carrel’s best friend. Howard’s plan, once HIV positive, was to commit suicide when the disease began to progress. His plan, however, didn’t work out.
“He got AIDS-related dementia,” Carrel said. “There wasn’t a hospital in Manhattan, Kan., that would admit anyone with AIDS. When Dennis died, he weighed 98 pounds and he died in a diaper.”
Carrel warned his captive audience that, unlike a sudden heart attack, no death he’s ever seen from AIDS has been quick or pleasant. Instead, he’s seen his friends die slowly and painfully of multiple infections and hospitalizations as they wither away to nothing. Furthermore, Carrel detailed the expenses of a life with AIDS, from the monetary costs of drugs to their slew of side effects, which includes everything from diabetes to diarrhea.
“Prevention … it’s easy,” Carrel said. “You should assume everyone you date has HIV. You’ve got to use a condom.”
Carrel also shared handouts with statistics about HIV and AIDS and sexual exposure. For instance, he shared that on average, a person who has had four sexual partners has had 15 sexual exposures to diseases.
Carrel left the group with a sobering image of some of his final time with Dennis.
“The worst day of my life was the first day I ever changed Dennis’ diaper,” Carrel said. “Every time I talk to a group, I pray none of them ever get HIV. I say, ‘I hope no one ever has to change their friend’s diaper.'”
The students in attendance said they felt that Carrel broke down barriers talking about a stigmatized issue.
“[I mainly got] information,” Caren Chellgren, third-year student in veterinary medicine, said. “Especially with this kind of topic, this clears up any questions. It’s such a hard topic to talk about.”
Also in attendance were some old friends of Carrel’s. One, Kevin Stilley, is another HIV positive man who knew Carrel back in the 1970s. He also spoke briefly about the effects of the disease.
“I’ve slowed down a lot,” Stilley said. “But part of that might just be age.”