By Michael Drew Embrey
In 1988, I tested positive for HIV. I had just turned 25 and was living in Dallas. Instinctually, I knew this virus would involve a fierce battle against death. The only FDA-approved medication at the time was AZT. One of the only doctors treating HIV-positive people in Dallas said that I had roughly four years to live because my T-cell count was only 450—one year for every 100 T-cells. I started on the AZT and, within hours, was desperately sick—I had nausea like never before. I crawled to the bathroom with insane diarrhea because, if I tried to stand up, I’d pass out. Within two weeks, I needed three pints of blood to counteract the anemia. By the third week, I stopped taking the AZT.
There was a small study in Dallas using an experimental drug called DDC. I enrolled and quickly learned that I had received the placebo. I was stuck. I then found this new tool called the ‘Internet’ and started transforming myself from a makeup artist/stylist/singer/writer into a ferocious scientific researcher. My last science or math class was in the 9th grade and each semester I went from B to C to D to should’ve-been-F but my teachers took pity. Now, I had to focus on making something out of nothing. I was driven because I knew that there were bigger life challenges ahead than this. And I was right.
I stumbled onto a multi-drug study, one of the few in the United States, at this hospital called St. Vincent’s. I was born in St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, so I figured that the Catholics would continue to help me survive. I came to the City and was screened for the drug study. I stayed with good friends in Midtown. I fell in love with the City and the European-looking area around the hospital.
The nurse asked if I lived in the neighborhood and I said I was moving into a local apartment next month. I was afraid that if I said what she didn’t want to hear, I’d never get into the drug study. I told her that my life depended on this. She found my Pollyanna attitude, humble charm, and strong Oklahoma accent amusing and somehow comforting.
I got into St. Vincent’s Triple Drug Study, which lasted three years. I was also blessed to find three apartments that met my naïve expectations: 1) It had to be on the top floor because noise freaked me out; 2) There had to be an elevator; 3) I needed a dishwasher; 4) I needed a window in every room; 5) I had to have laundry in the building; 6) I had to have at least one southern or western exposure; and 7) It had to be rent stabilized and under $1,100 a month. I found three apartments with at least six items from my list. I still live at 300 West 12th Street, 26 years later.
I am so thankful everyday for my City. I walk around in awe of how I’m able, by sheer will, to call it home. I am so grateful for neighbors I’ve known now for half my life. They have reached out generously with help, food, comfort, and kindness.
In 2007, I found out that I had an aggressive case of Squamous Cell Carcinoma on my left cheek. It traveled to my lymph nodes and into my lower left brain. St. Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Care Center saved my life. As my treatment ended, I contracted the drug-resistant MRSA staph infection. I spent 18 days in solitary intensive care at St. Vincent’s. Three times, a neighborhood hospital I could walk to saved my life. It was an extension of my home, my neighborhood. I had AIDS and was treated just like everyone else, sometimes stellar and sometimes shitty. The food was pig slop but it was home.
So now I’ll be 54. I never thought I’d live to see 30. I’m healthy but I’m terrified that I’ll lose my home. I’ve lost St. Vincent’s, the place I actually felt most secure in times of life and death. I am part of the Disability Rent Increase Exemption program (DRIE) so my rent is frozen at one-third the rate of the nice guy’s apartment below me. My dishwasher hasn’t worked in four years and only one burner has functioned on the stove longer. But I’m still here and happy more days than not.