Stu Smith has been HIV-positive for almost 25 years and considers himself lucky to have lived through the worst of the epidemic. The virus is under control, but for the past decade Smith has been experiencing problems associated with early aging that have him concerned about the consequences of living with HIV and the drugs used to treat it. Smith, 71, is chairman of the board of the Shanti Project, which helps people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, and was recently appointed to San Francisco's new LGBT task force on aging.
My doctor started noticing my problems with early aging about 10 years ago. It started with various forms of bone disease, and then I had a couple of heart attacks. I've got a lot of osteoarthritis, just stuff that really, really slows you down. It's all basically got to do with aging.
Seven years ago, I had my first heart attack and I thought it was pneumonia again. I was too young for a heart attack. The arthritis, I've had it for 25 years. I shouldn't have had it for more than five years at this point.
And I had this incident 10 years ago where I had a bone fracture in my wrist, and they went through five operations and they couldn't fix it, the bones were too brittle. The brittle bone thing, that wasn't supposed to happen to people my age. That's very advanced. And I had this curvature of my spine, again, too early.
My doctor was telling me there's evidence these things are occurring before their time. We have a joke now, I take about 40 pills every day and only three of them are for HIV. It's kind of a complicated situation.
I was diagnosed with HIV in '88. They put me on AZT and I had some trouble - AZT was very, very tough stuff to take, and they were giving us very large doses back then. But I went on everything that was available. Any scientific options, choices, risks, trials - I was there.
It was kind of Russian roulette at the time. Some guys would get sick and die, and I kept surviving. At one point I got pneumonia and that was a really challenging event for me. People were dying right and left at that point. They put me in a 10-bed unit (at San Francisco General Hospital), and they isolated me and got me through that.
It was just a real rocket ride, up and down. You'd get close to death, and then you'd bounce back.
I've been receiving psychiatric help right since the beginning. I never was depressed until HIV, and I'm on an antidepressant now. But when I got my diagnosis I was so ashamed and so embarrassed. Now I'm so busy that I don't really think about it that much. I associate with people who are really busy, and who are involved in the solution rather than the problem.
I'm actually doing relatively well now. In spite of all of my concerns, they're keeping me alive. I take almost 40 pills every day, and I administer injections to myself, but what's been occurring is so miraculous. I really believe they have kept me alive 20 years past my time.