By Stanley Wlodyka
Last month marked the 30th anniversary of an unprecedented event, one that saw worlds collide. Organized by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), approximately 4,500 people gathered outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue one Sunday in December of 1989. They were there to protest the Catholic Church’s response to the AIDS epidemic, as well as its views on abortion, homosexuality and safe sex practices. When all was said and done, 111 people were arrested for their participation in the protest.
It was during the height of the AIDS epidemic, a time when New Yorkers were dropping like flies. The demonstration outside the church was enough to garner widespread media attention, but some members of ACT UP felt more was needed to get their point across. Dozens entered the church, disguised as parishioners attending mass, but one by one they began dropping like flies during the service in an action they termed a “Die-In,” a symbolic gesture representing the victims of the epidemic. Others handcuffed themselves to pews, and one man, Michael Petrelis, then 30 years old, climbed up above the rest, blew into a whistle and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Stop killing us!”
Thirty years on, Petrelis has lived twice as much life, considerably more than the life expectancy he was given when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Last month, he stood on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to commemorate the anniversary of the historical demonstration and to remind onlookers that the fight against AIDS is not yet over.
Though new infections in the United States have continued to fall each year thanks to widespread access to advancements in medical care, worldwide there were as many as 2.3 million new HIV infections and as much as 1.1 million AIDS-related deaths in 2018 alone, according to the United Nations. Faced with these numbers, one demonstrator last month expressed his frustration that the only prophylactic condoned by the Catholic Church has been (and still is) abstinence:
“We have a better chance of levitating this cathedral than getting the Catholic Church to realize that sex is popular. People love it. People will continue to love it. Right now it’s dangerous. Wear a condom!”
Petrelis, however, is setting his sights higher. He owes his unexpected longevity to a mish-mash of prescription drugs, colloquially called the AIDS cocktail. The cocktail can be personalized to an individual patient’s chemistry: if two greens, one blue, three reds and an orange pill don’t work, maybe a green, two blues, two reds and four yellows might. However, this sort of mix-and-match approach to AIDS treatment doesn’t work for everyone and Petrelis is dead set on leaving no soldier behind.
“The AIDS cocktail is keeping me and lots of people alive. However, the high price of the drugs and some of the side effects of the drugs mean that not enough people are getting the drugs. And the cocktail is not a cure. We need a full cure from HIV,” pronounces Petrelis.
Passerby Sara Kerley, 40, was delighted by her serendipitous good fortune to have witnessed the demonstration last month: “I was listening to a random podcast this morning [on the AIDS crisis during the 1980’s] while I was getting ready. It’s funny to happen on this. I was bringing my kids to look at the Christmas decorations.”
Kerley, who is a doctor practicing family medicine in Mount Laurel, NJ, can certainly attest that the medical community’s treatment of patients with HIV and AIDS has evolved significantly through the years.
“It’s more like a chronic disease now. But definitely I see patients that are dealing with the side effects of the medications or the medications aren’t working for them anymore. They can’t tolerate them. They’re having to move from cocktail to cocktail. I went through residency 10 years ago and there were actually patients of ours dying in the hospital. I haven’t seen a patient with AIDS in a while. It’s kind of HIV maintenance at this point.”
Asked whether she saw an out and out cure for HIV in the future, Dr. Kerley feels the outlook isn’t so good so long as keeping patients dependent on medications is the most profitable option for the pharmaceutical industry. “That’s the way it works,” laments Dr. Kerley.