Swallowing 53 pills a day. Living life by time and medication. Attending over 100 funerals in the span of two years. This is the life Bart McDermott led after being diagnosed HIV positive. His HIV diagnosis in 1989 seemed like a death sentence.
“Everyone around me was just giving up, cashing in bonds and moving to Palm Springs,” McDermott said. Instead of treating it like a terminal disease, McDermott decided to treat HIV as a chronic disease, which can be managed.
McDermott would visualize his body as the game of Pacman. He was Pacman and he decided to devour HIV and fight.
“What is the option to fighting HIV? Dying. Hello. What is the better option?” McDermott said.
When he was in his late 20s, McDermott lived a dangerous lifestyle. McDermott had been maintaining a lifestyle filled with parties, late nights, drugs and unprotected sex.
He realized if he was going to survive, he had to change. Surviving as a normal person with HIV and AIDs is possible. Living with HIV and AIDs without a lifestyle change is not possible.
“I knew my life would change drastically,” McDermott said.
Once he was diagnosed, he immediately began to look ahead to the future.
“It wasn’t an ‘Oh my God I can’t believe this is happening moment.’ It was more ‘Okay, now what,’” McDermott said.
McDermott’s first partner, Michael, refused to change his lifestyle. He was dead within three years of diagnosis.
McDermott did not tell his family right away of his medical status. He had always been a personal person and being sick was not going to change that.
“I told them they were going to have to make this about me and not them. They can’t hop on a plane every time I get sick,” McDermott said. “I can’t worry and stress about how they’re dealing when I need to worry about me.”
Being a former swimmer, runner and recent bicyclist, McDermott believes his active lifestyle helps him to maintain his health. His love for fresh food, cooking and exercise has allowed McDermott to survive living with HIV without medication.
After taking 53 pills a day to survive, McDermott became tired of feeling like a sick person. Every time he changed his medicine, he would be hit with waves of nausea, fatigue and rashes.
“Drugs are toxic. I love not being on medication. You’re not popping a handful of pills twice a day. Psychologically you feel better because you don’t feel like you have HIV,” McDermott said.
“I remember how mad people were about us not sending pills to Africa but they didn’t have watches,” MaryEllen Kane, sister of McDermott, said. “It was hard enough for Bart to remember when to take his pills. They couldn’t take 53 pills a day without time.”
McDermott tested a year off of medication in 1997. By 1999, he was back on medication. During the year 2001, McDermott decided to stop taking medication again. Nine years went by and McDermott led a normal life in San Francisco as a patent lawyer, healthy and more alive than ever.
“I believe the drugs will kill me,” McDermott said. “Drugs wear the system down.” When on medication, McDermott does not even catch the common cold only seems like an upside.
On medication, his own immune system is put to sleep and so he is unable to fight any disease or infection on his own.
Seven pills a day is now what helps McDermott rebuild his immune system.
The most common misconception about HIV and AIDs is that a person dies from AIDs when in reality the immune system is so weakened they cannot fight off common infections or colds.
When HIV and AIDs first became prominent in the 1980s, Kaposi sarcoma was the most common cause of death. KS is a cancer-like disease that shows up as lesions.
“I believe some people need medication for the rest of their life but I disagree with medical advice that everyone needs it,” McDermott said. “I’ve always had a positive frame of mind and because of my past, I think my immune system is strong enough.”
The immune system becomes weaker as a person’s T cells drop. T cells are at the core of immunity. Picture them like soldiers who search out and destroy the enemy.
At one point, McDermott’s T cells dropped to 176. Any lower than 200 and a person is considered to have fullblown AIDs. With medication and the perseverance to become healthy once again, McDermott’s T cells rose.
“If there’s anyone who can outlast this, it’s me. I don’t know why I was so arrogant but I had no other choice,” McDermott said.
After bouncing back to above a 200 T cell count, McDermott no longer considers himself to have AIDs. He believes if the immune system can grow stronger, there is no reason to still be diagnosed with AIDs.
Involvement with activism has always been important to McDermott. In 1996 he volunteered for The San Francisco AIDS Foundation. SFAF combines innovative programs for HIV prevention and care by reaching out to the community and raising awareness and support for those in need.
“One of the reasons I am seeing my 55th birthday is due to the help I received from the SF AIDs Foundation in the 1990s,” McDermott said on Life Cycle’s website. “Thankfully, I have been healthy for some time now. But I know others who are not as fortunate, and I must give back as well as give forward.”
He continues to support research to help find a cure for HIV and AIDs by riding in AIDs Life Cycle, a seven day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. McDermott’s goal this year is to raise $3,000 in support.
McDermott only looks ahead in life. He has buried three partners. He has outlasted a disease longer than Magic Johnson and continues to spread awareness. McDermott says the passion and will he has for life is all thanks to his parents and family.
“I owe a lot to my parents. I got dealt the right deck of cards,” McDermott said. “I got lucky.”