How A Slip Of Paper Impacted An AIDS Diagnosis

Dec 5, 2017

These days HIV can be diagnosed sooner and treated more effectively than when Christopher Harris got his diagnosis. When he contracted the disease, there was only one drug approved for treatment. Harris became an early member of the Atlanta Buyers Club, which distributed unapproved drugs to treat AIDS patients. We hear his story, courtesy of the NPR’s series, StoryCorps.

Christopher Harris was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. At the time, there was only one drug approved for treatment, and the diagnosis often meant a death sentence.

For Christopher, it led him to become an early member of the Atlanta Buyers Club, which distributed unapproved drugs to treat AIDS patients.

The diagnosis came not long after he began seeing Jim.

"He was so good looking," Christopher tells StoryCorps. "It was the first time that I had fallen in love, and we were together until the day he died."

Christopher had been married to a woman, but the relationship fell apart after he came out. They lived together for 14 years and had a daughter.

Not long after he and Jim got together, Christopher, now 73, began feeling sick. He saw several doctors, but he says they all told him the same thing: "Nothing's wrong with you. You're just nervous because of your difficult divorce."

Christopher wasn't convinced. That's when he went to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

"The doctor asked me if I was at a high risk for this new disease that was going about," he says. "I said yes. So when I finally went back for my next appointment, the young resident ... told me that I had AIDS, and I never shall forget, he was about to cry."

He told the doctor he had a child to raise. He couldn't die — not yet. The doctor told him he had 12 to 14 months.

"But we're going to fight to make that better," he says the doctor told him. "Are you willing to fight?"

At one point during treatment, Christopher's T cell count had dropped. A physician assistant told Christopher there were some new drugs that might help, but they weren't available because the FDA had not yet approved them. He told him there was a place in town to get the drugs, but he couldn't say where. On his way out of the office, he told Christopher he had dropped a slip of paper.

"I said, 'No, I didn't.' He said, 'Yeah you did.' And I looked down. There was a piece of paper he had thrown across the desk. And I picked it up, and it was a phone number," Christopher recalls.

Christopher called the number, reaching a group of men that eventually became known as the Atlanta Buyers Club. They were distributing medications from the black market.

After receiving the drugs he needed, he thanked them and said he wished he could help them.

"And they said, 'Do you really mean that?' I said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'Well, be here Friday night.' And I started working with them, at the Buyers Club," he says. "And we were tough. We were just tough. But, I think I'm the only one left, and they were wonderful guys."