Ken’s Take on the World

My Story—World AIDS Day Version
November 26, 2012, 8:35 am
Filed under: Health and Medicine

I left for the Navy 20 days after my High School graduation.  Being only 17, my folks had to sign the forms to let me enlist.  I had an agreement with the Navy to become a Hospitalcorpsman (HM), a Navy medic.  While I knew that I liked guys, I somehow did not quite grasp the fact that I was gay quite yet.  After Basic Training I entered Hospitalcorps A School and graduated near the top of my class.  During my HM schooling, I learned of some advanced programs that were available upon completion of the A school.  I selected Surgical Technology thinking that you could not do surgery on a ship and that I would have a land-based assignment and be able to finish college while still enlisted in the Navy.  I would soon discover there are ships on which you can do surgery.

In 1986, while stationed aboard the USS Saipan, a helicopter/amphibious assault ship, the US military began mandatory HIV testing for all active duty military personnel.  HIV testing of all military recruits and US-based military personnel had actually begun in 1985.  The test was actually used as a proxy to identify gay military personnel.  Remember, in the early ‘80’s, it was gay men in New York and San Francisco that were being decimated by this new syndrome.  I was tested, although I was not really worried even though by this point I had realized that I was gay, because I had never been to San Francisco (ever) or New York (except as a kid).  I was one of a few of us HM’s on the ship who then tested over 850 sailors and 2,500 Marines for HIV over the course of a week.  Back then it was a blood draw.  We didn’t even wear gloves until the lab tech told us we were idiots because Hepatitis B could be contracted through the skin!!  One of the tests came back positive.  A young man who served as a cook on the Admiral’s Staff.  He was escorted off the ship and I never had a chance to meet with him or find out what he was told.

After getting kicked out of the Navy during a witch-hunt for gay men on my ship, I came home and started working as a Surgical Technologist.  My taxpayer-funded education did pay off!!  This was in mid-1987 and Universal Precautions (now called Standard Precautions) was just being rolled out.  A vaccine for Hepatitis B was also being introduced.  I received the first of the series and then a few weeks later suffered a scalpel injury in the OR and contracted Hep B from the patient.  Throughout the late-‘80’s and into the mid-‘90’s, when other co-workers did not want to work with a patient who was known, or thought, to be gay, or have HIV/AIDS, I would always step in and offer to care for the patient.  I told a surgeon off in the mid-‘90’s for being an idiot for requiring all of his patients to be tested for HIV before he would do surgery on them.

Because of my experience getting kicked out of the Navy, I became an anti-discrimination advocate when I came home.  I served as a volunteer switchboard operator at our local community center, Affirmations.  I also became Chairperson of the Detroit Area Gay/Lesbian Council’s (DAG/LC) Anti-Violence Task Force that was being created to address a spate of anti-gay hate crimes that were occurring in the metropolitan-Detroit area.  I became the Gay/Lesbian Liaison to the Michigan ACLU and also served on some other boards of gay/lesbian organizations.  When DADT was first proposed, I did a fair amount of public speaking in opposition to this so-called compromise.  I also became involved with protests that were taking place against the first Cracker Barrel restaurant in Michigan!  I actually organized the first sit-in protest one Sunday morning at the restaurant in Bellville, Michigan!  It was pretty successful and the Manager was kind enough to inform us when they were going to have to call the Police!  Fun times!!

In 1988, I met my life partner, Michael, and we opened a gay and lesbian bookstore/ coffeehouse, Just 4 Us, in Ferndale, Michigan in 1997.  Michael had become the Director of the metro-Detroit PrideFest in 1990 and also established the Michigan International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Lesbian and Gay ComedyFest.  In 1998, stress from the business and from my regular job as well as personal issues between us, led to our breakup.  Because of our responsibilities to the business, we had to remain cordial and professional, and we have become the best of friends even after we sold the business in 2002!  Today we are roommates (along with his life partner, Scott).

My first HIV test after the Navy was in 1990 and I tested each year for several years.  In 1997, I decided I would test every other year and tested negative in January 1997 and, again, in 1999.  In January of 2002, I realized I had not tested in 2001 and went in for a test at the testing site.  Throughout the Fall of 2001, I had been sick a few times which was unusual and in January of 2002 when I went in to be tested I was sick with a troublesome cold/bronchitis once again.  I tested on Saturday, January 20, 2002 and planned to go back in a week to get my test results.  In the meantime, I showed up for work on the 25th and my co-workers looked at me, popped me into a wheelchair and dropped me off in the ER!  One convenient thing about working in a hospital!  At this time, I was working as an Educator and teaching the Surgical Technology Program that we had started in January of 1999 with William Beaumont Hospital and Oakland Community College.  I had a very handsome, young, internal medicine physician assigned to my case and after eliciting my history (namely, I was gay), he ordered appropriate bloodwork.  Because I was waiting for my HIV test results and to avoid the snooping eyes of any unscrupulous colleagues, the blood tests he ordered were surrogates.  Namely, he ordered basic lab work and CD4 profiles.  I had 10 fewer CD4’s than my age at the time!  In addition, my Hepatitis markers indicated that I would not be able to scrub into surgical cases anymore.  That was kind of a crushing blow for me.  25 CD4’s I could live with, but not being able to do what I really enjoyed and was pretty good at was tough to take.

I was let go from my position at the hospital in July of 2002, and while I am certain it was because of my HIV status, I was not out about this except to my family and friends.  Of course they said it was because I couldn’t scrub in surgery anymore, however, no surgical technology program in the country actually requires this of their instructor’s.  In fact, the Surgical Technology Program Director at Macomb Community College hired me as an Adjunct Faculty member in the following semester!  It took a little while, but one of my professional contacts also recruited me to work for her firm which contracted with hospitals to manage Sterile Processing Departments and a couple of years later I was recruited by the Henry Ford Health System to run the Sterile Processing Department at their flagship facility!  I now work as a Supervisor of the Sterile Processing Department for Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center, and spend a fair amount of time in the OR, although, I still cannot scrub in.  I also still teach Surgical Technology at Oakland Community College and Macomb Community College.  After OCC severed their ties with the hospital, their new Surgical Technology Program Director has brought me back on board!

One of the topics that I cover in my courses, and that I have presented for other instructors, is on bloodborne pathogens.  I have discussed my Hepatitis status with all of these students as part of the lecture.  For my core students, however, I have not discussed my HIV status, although I do present HIV in its history and its current impact on healthcare practice.  For other students, I do not have an issue with it, however, with my core students, I do this presentation very early in the program and I have these students for two full semesters and so I do not want my status to overshadow the rest of the material I need to present throughout the program.  This past August, when the Dearborn Police Department made that traffic stop involving an HIV+ individual, I learned about it, first from Robert, and second, from Aaron!  I then read Todd’s piece in The American Independent, watched the video, and called the Police Chief.  I told him in our meeting that as someone who is poz, I found the officer’s comments to be ignorant and unacceptable.  I was subsequently interviewed by Todd for a follow up piece.  Chief Haddad and I have some tentative training set up for early next year.  I was also interviewed for a new magazine called, “X Press” regarding the rate of HIV infections and the importance of prevention.  That is my first real public “outing” of my status.  Oh yeah, and I did a photo for “A Day With HIV.”

It is only about a year-and-a-half since I became acquainted with Poziam and through it, Robert B!  It is really only since then that I have decided to become more open about my status.  For me, I do not feel a need to “come out” to someone, but, if anyone asks, I will tell them.  When I “came out” as gay, it was basically when I was interviewed regarding my experiences and opposition to DADT in 1993 and people saw the news coverage.  I had written letters to the editor of our main papers in the area about gay and lesbian issues since I had been kicked out of the Navy and so some people “knew.”  Likewise, I have written letters to the editor about HIV education and prevention as well as posts on FB and Twitter that would lead some people to “know” that I am HIV+.


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