05/17/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

AIDS Walk NY: Not Even a Heart Attack Can Keep Walkers Away

The breeze blew the verdant leaves of the beautiful Royal Paulowina trees as I walked through Central Park. As I looked up, a rainbow-hued bird flew gracefully across the robin's-egg blue sky. A perfect picture-postcard Spring day. I was one of 45,000 walkers who were part of the annual GMHC-sponsored AIDS Walk NY. Suddenly I felt a marked shortness of breath. I felt I was gasping for air. My fellow walker, Cheryl Lee Charles, noticed I was having trouble. "I think it's my asthma," I told her. "I have asthma too," she explained a beaming smile crossing her face. "Don't worry, I'll walk with you. We'll walk slowly. Let the others walk ahead of us." By others she meant the members of the Keep A Child Alive team we were a part of and more than 40 service organizations raising funds to fight AIDS. I finished the walk, thanks to Cheryl's encouragement.

But something was wrong and I felt it. Unknowingly I had walked and finished the 6.2 mile wakathon having suffered a massive heart attack 48 hours earlier. As my symptoms persisted, I finally made it to the emergency room. Doctors told me about the heart attack and rushed me to St.Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. Days later I underwent quadruple bypass open heart surgery. I was placed in an induced coma. The surgeon told my brother I might not live through the ordeal. Because I had waited so long to come to the hospital, my heart suffered extreme damage. In addition to the bypass, the surgeon had to place tissue--like a bandage-between the paper-thin walls of my ventricles.

I survived. One year later, a defibrillator/pacemaker implanted in my chest, I will once again join AIDS WalkNY walking the 6 mile route and raising $2,030 for a cause dear to my heart. And once again I will walk alongside Cheryl Lee Charles, the "angel" who got me through it. Also this this year. I've recruited three additional friends -- Matthew Carnino, Ooana Trien and James Fackrell to walk with me. In 27 years, AIDS Walk NY has raised more than half a billion dollars for GMHC(Gay Men's Health Crisis). According to the GMHC, it is the East Coast's and the world's largest such fundraising event.


We have come a long way in understanding HIV/AIDS. But the fight is not over. As someone who lived through the worst days of the epidemic-and survived- I remember the indifference of leaders and the shocking apathy that led to so many deaths. I sat at the bedside of so many friends who passed away. Some had lesions covering much of their bodies. Others suffered from pneumonia or cryptosporidium, a gastrointestinal illness with diarrhea. Some seemed to simply waste away. There was discrimination. There was fear. We know now AIDS is not a moral condemnation against one group of people. It is a syndrome. In Africa, women and children still grapple with the virus. Medications are not always available and many people still die.

"This year, AIDS Walk NY is even more critical as we expect serious cuts in federal funding by the sequester," says Marjorie Hill, GMHC's charismatic CEO. "Yet more and more people come through the doors for help. We cannot stop listening to and addressing the needs of our community in this epidemic."

David Fazio, GMHC's Chief Financial Officer agrees. "We can't rely on government like we used to for funding," he says. "It's really important that the private sector step up and our friends, families and colleagues donate and support us."

This is the third year I'll be walking with the Keep A Child Alive(KCA) team. KCA gives AIDS treatment, care and nutrition as well as support service to children and families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India. One of its "star" walkers is Ian Jopson. This year he's raised an impressive $29,051. That compares with more than $16,000 he raised last year. "Every year AIDS WALK is a great opportunity to bring the plight of the world's children living with HIV to people's attention," Jopson says. "Sadly 75 per cent of children who have HIV cannot access treatment," he adds. "I make every effort to make a difference to that statistic having raised enough this year to put over 80 children on medication for an entire year." The global impact of HIV/AIDS is also what attracted the reigning Miss Universe Olivia Culpo to the cause. The first contestant from the USA to capture the coveted crown in 15 years, Ms. Culpo is also walking with the Keep A Child Alive Team. "Participating in the annual AIDS WALK NY is a great way to motivate others to join the fight against this deadly disease," Ms. Culpo says. "It is an opportunity to show how these groups work together to put an end to the stigma by creating an understanding of the people and families affected by HIV/AIDS domestically and worldwide."

Another team making an impact is Friends In Deed. This community based organization helps people cope when they receive an HIV/AIDS diagnosis and also assists men and women afflicted by cancer. Friends In Deed provides much needed counseling and outreach services for those with life-threatening illnesses. Kelly Salvadore, 57, knows first-hand. He was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1994 . He also learned he suffered from Non- Hodgkins lymphoma. "I lost my career as an actor," he says."I lost everything. Suddenly I was faced with $70,000 in debt so I turned to Friends In Deed," he says. The organization helped Salvadore get insurance, learn about nutrition and deal mentally with the issues of facing both cancer and HIV/AIDS. On Sunday he will walk and serve as co-captain of his team. Salvadore underwent chemotherapy and now is cancer free. His HIV is manageable thanks to retro-viral medications. And when he walks he'll be thinking of others. "I'm going to think of all the people who are not able to be walking, who were not able to hang on to get the medications," he says. "It will be my way of giving back," Salvadore adds. Last year the team raised more than $65,000 during AIDS Walk NY. GMHC officials say 75 per cent of the money raised from AIDS Walk NY goes directly to the service organizations. And 25 per cent goes to GMHC and to expenses, associated with the walkathon.

Osvaldo Perdomo is co-captain of the Friends In Deed team. The affable Cuban-American, who has publicly admitted to being HIV-positive, also wears wears a second hat besides being team leader of Friends In Deed. He proudly sits on the Board of Directors of GMHC. "I walk because dealing with HIV or AIDS today is not as easy as some people may think," he says. "Gratefully, treatment options are better than before , but it's still a challenge for many." Perdomo believes there is a climate of complacency at a time when vigilance is critical. "The CDC has reported approximately 900,000 people in this country, out of 1.2 million who are living with HIV/AIDS, do not have the virus under control."

And there are other sobering statistics. The GMHC reports that one in five Americans is living with HIV and doesn't know it. African -Americans, in general, make up 14 per cent of the U.S. population but represent 50 per cent of HIV cases. In the U.S., the GMHC reports, 1.2 million people live with HIV and there are 50,000 new cases each year. African-Americans and Latinas are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. And 11 per cent of new cases are people over 50. "There is still a lot of stigma around HIV," says David Fazio in an interview conducted in GMHC headquarters in New York City. "Unfortunately people don't feel comfortable revealing their HIV status because of that." And there are an alarming number of young people coming down with HIV says Fazio. That would appear to indicate that the message of treatment and prevention isn't reaching everyone. "Young people need to understand that while it is treatable, it's not curable and it makes your life very complicated."

So on Sunday I will slip on my sneakers and join 45,000 walkers committed to a cause. I will once again walk alongside my Cheryl Lee Charles and gaze at the beautiful Royal Paulowina trees on the 6.2 mile route. One year almost to the day of suffering a heart attack, I'm proud to back again. I will also be walking to honor the memory of Charles Romo, a humanitarian who was taken away from us all too quickly in a senseless act of violence. And just like Friends In Deed Co- Captain Kelly Salvadore, I will be thinking of all those who will not be walking with us. They won't be there because they didn't live to see the day when new medications offered new hope. But they will be there in spirit. And their spirit will keep us walking--- all the way to the finish line.