Veronica Hendrix

*It’s been 30 years since the first case of HIV was diagnosed in the United States. The five men who contracted and were subsequently diagnosed with the then mystery illness were all seemingly healthy men who coincidently happened to be gay. Their unexplained illness of pneumonia like symptoms, fever and coughing were alarmingly resistant to drug treatments.

You remember how their story ended – they all died. A few years after their untimely deaths, the mystery illness was given a name. It was identified as the human immunodeficiency virus or better known as HIV.

HIV was viewed as the new model day plague. The afflicted were treated like lepers. Covertly and publicly they were shunned, whispered about and condemned.  The illness had condemned so many to die. Fear of the unknown caused many people to sentence the afflicted to exile while they waited on what was assumed to be their life sentence – death.

The number of people diagnosed with the new virus rose from 318 in 1981 to 75,457 in 1992.  Many of them did die – nearly 150,000 from 1981 to 1991 according to the Center for Disease Control.

Their sea of faces and names were essentially unknown, unless you had a friend or family member that was battling the disease or had succumbed to it. Sympathy for the victims was eclipsed by fear and castigation.

But on November 7, 1991 the face of HIV became a familiar one. Suddenly the fear and castigation that gripped so many was confronted when one of the most beloved athletes made a staggering announcement.  At a press conference 32-year-old Magic Earving Johnson said, “Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

It wasn’t one of those “do you remember where were you when it happened” moments for me as it was for many, particular sports fans. It was a one of those “do you remember how you felt and was you saw when it happened” moments.

I can’t tell you where I was on that harrowing day when I saw the press conference. But I can vividly recall what struck me that day as I listened to Magic make this very public confession. It was watching his deep set eyes. They were sullen, searching and confused. He was ending an illustrious career at the top of his game, not of his own choosing, but because his life choices had deemed otherwise.

Fear and uncertainty about his fate was evident. All we knew about the virus at that time was that its end was swift and certain. Many of the drugs and treatment didn’t seem to improve the quality or quantity of life after a positive diagnosis and the road to full blow Acquired Immune Deficiency or AIDS was fated. Magic was going to die. How sad. How tragic. How awful for his wife and family. How awful for his fans.

But Magic vowed that he would not succumb to the virus. He said he planned to keep on living for a long time. I remember saying to myself at that moment, if anyone can defy what seems inevitable, Magic can.

Now HIV/AIDS had a well known face and an ambassador.  The same year he learned he had the disease, he founded the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise money and awareness to fight for a cure and provide help for those fighting the disease, helping over 250,000 people each year.

As awareness increased, the rate of new HIV/AIDS cases began decline, although there continued to be upticks in the African American community. There were new breakthroughs and advances in drug treatments that literally slowed down the progression of the virus to full blown AIDS. People were living and not dying. The virus was being managed, although not cured.

Magic broke down the barriers and dispelled the self-perpetuating myths about contracting the disease. His heart warming smile soon replaced the look of fear and uncertainty that gripped his eyes on the ill-fated day of his announcement.

It’s really magic – literally. He turned his personal tragedy into advocacy at a time when the backlash was brutal and prejudice was personal. He may have quit the team, but he’s still in game.

Today he has cause to celebrate. It has been 20 years since he was diagnosed with HIV. He is doing exactly as he said – living a full and rich life with HIV/AIDS.   I can just feel the proverbial confetti falling from the sky. It certain is a moment to take in and celebrate his courage and his accomplishments. He has changed the face and fate of those living with HIV/AIDS.  His work is certainly not done. The CDC estimates that 1,178,350 people in the United States are now living with HIV, and 20% of those infected have not been diagnosed.

But his work certainly deserves thunderous recognition. I will mark this moment and will remember what I was feeling when I saw his television interviews marking his 20 year anniversary of living with HIV. New words come to mind – blessed, hopeful and determined. You could see it in his eyes.

Veronica Hendrix is a syndicated columnist and feature writer whose work has covered the span of the human continuum – from clinical trials of male contraceptives, to the gang violence. She is the owner of Bromont Avenue Foods. She is the author of “Red Velvet Gourmet Spice Rub and Seasoning Heart Healthy Recipes.” Visit http://bromontavefoods.com for more information.  For comments, interviews, speaking engagements or moderator requests please send an email to vsview@yahoo.com.