Hope in the fight against AIDS

Hope in the fight against AIDS


Some 50,000 people are infected with HIV in the United States every year. But the virus, while devastating, is no longer a death sentence, and different facilities have sprung up to combat it. One of these is community group SWAG (Sexy with A Goal) run by the AIDS Service Centre of New York City. SWAG is an initiative to try to boost community awareness, and is made up of mostly HIV positive men aged 19-29. Members, like the two pictured here, actively engage young men in their community.

. NEWARK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Broadway House for Continuing Care is another facility bringing hope to sufferers of the disease. It is the only specialised nursing facility for people living with HIV/AIDS in New Jersey. Recent data shows that some northeast U.S. cities including Newark, Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington D.C. have been particularly hard hit in recent years by the global AIDS epidemic, and infection is highest among blacks, Hispanics and gay and bisexual men.

Broadway House patient, the 56-year-old former NBA basketball player Nate Granger, calls himself "living proof that HIV/AIDS patients have a chance to survive".

Granger was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2001. He weighed just 165 pounds after suffering a stroke. Confined to a hospital bed, unable to walk or talk, and taking as many as 18 pills a day to combat the virus. Granger now takes just one pill a day, weighs 250 pounds and lives in his own apartment at JbJ Soul House Genesis 1 - an affordable development with support services for low income and special needs people.

. NEWARK, Canada. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bobby Billingsly, 40, from Newark, New Jersey (left) and Woodrow "Woody" Barron, 69, from Plainfield, New Jersey, are both HIV/AIDS patients living at Broadway House.

The facility, which has 78 resident HIV/AIDS patients, works with resident patients to ensure that they receive the medical, social and psychological support that they need to adjust to the effects of AIDS and to return back to the communities they came from.

. NEWARK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Billingsly contracted HIV/AIDS around the year 2000 through heterosexual sex, and was in such a dire medical condition when he arrived at the centre two years ago that he was close to dying. Now he says that through today's treatment and the acute care he received there "is reason to believe that you can beat this thing... maybe not beat it, but not let it beat you".

. NEW YORK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

According to a report released in 2012 by the Black AIDS Institute, black gay and bisexual men make up one in 500 Americans overall, but account for one in four new HIV infections in the United States. It found that by the time a black gay man reaches 25, he has a one in four chance of being infected with HIV. By age 40, he has a 60 percent chance of being infected.

In New York, a group of mostly black, gay and HIV-positive men known as Sexy With A Goal, or SWAG, is pushing to raise awareness by handing out condoms and trying to educate other young gay men at risk. During a SWAG meeting, a member of the initiative Pierre Lynch (right), shares a laugh with gay adult entertainer Remy Mars.

. NEW YORK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Lynch (right), 24, and empowerment trainer Franklin Burns, 29, laugh together as members of the group Sexy with A Goal (SWAG) socialize at the AIDS Service Center of New York City.

Lynch has been part of SWAG from the beginning and says he is "passionate about change and that the message of 'don't give up, keep moving forward'" drives his life, and the lives of those he and his SWAG brothers attempt to affect.

. NEW YORK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Members of SWAG take part in a working session at the AIDS Service Center of New York City. The initiative is made up of mostly HIV positive men aged 19-29 who actively engage young MSMs (men who have sex with men) in their community through outreach and direct one-on-one street activity.

. NEW YORK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Inkera Jordan, who has been HIV positive since 1995 and is a peer educator with the ASC/NYC, socialises with members of SWAG.

. NEW YORK, United States. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Members of SWAG during a working session at the AIDS Service Center of New York City.

“What I came to quickly realise is that this story, or I should say this portion of it, is about hope – hope and recovery."
Mike Segar, Reuters Photographer

The photos in this project are not the dramatic, heartbreaking, moving sort that we have been used to seeing of AIDS patients from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

What I came to quickly realise is that this story, or I should say this portion of it, is about hope – hope and recovery. Living and learning to live as best one can with a disease the world has come to know all too well as an indiscriminate killer.

Take for example the hope that I saw in the eyes of 40-year-old AIDS patient Bobby Billingsly, a man who was close to death when he arrived at Broadway House in Newark, New Jersey, with a CD4 count near zero in 2009, an indication of what is known as full-blown AIDS.

With the care of nursing, physical therapy and support staff, the latest in AIDS-fighting medication, exercise, healthy diet and therapy, Billingsly is becoming the picture of hope – at least to me.

He has slowly been able to raise his CD4 count to nearly 200, improving his overall health and hoping to live as long as possible with AIDS. Twenty years ago he would surely have faced a speedy death.

Ahead of the July 2012 AIDS conference, the first to be held in the United States since 1990, I was asked to take a look at something related to HIV/AIDS in America. After months of mostly meeting with rejection in my efforts to gain access to any AIDS care facility, or clinic, or hospital, I was becoming somewhat frustrated. But I got a reply from Broadway House for Continuing Care in Newark. The staff had identified willing patients who wanted to talk to me about living with HIV/AIDS.

The facility stands in the North Ward of Newark, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River and New York Harbor from New York City, in a building featuring soaring two-story marble lobbies that once were home to a public high school in grander, more prosperous days that this low-income, urban area left behind many years ago.

It is New Jersey’s only specialised long-term and residential acute care facility for people living with HIV/AIDS. Broadway House offers comprehensive in-house medical services to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, in a community where HIV infection is still endemic, in a state that ranks fifth overall in the United States for total AIDS cases.

James R Gonzalez, Broadway House President and CEO, says the change in perception and reality for patients at Broadway House since 1995 has been remarkable.

“To see a patient like former NBA player Nate Granger for example, who came here after suffering a stroke, unable to walk or talk, emaciated and dying of AIDS, to see him improve enough to move out of acute care and into Genesis (a nearby affordable housing development)… and to see him move into an experience of an independent, healthy lifestyle living with HIV is such a giant leap from 20 or 25 years ago or even when we opened our doors in 1995.”

“The stories of AIDS patients here have not all been happy, but we see so much hope today where there was far less when we started. That’s a good sign,” Gonzalez said.