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South Florida AIDS activist Dab Garner lives with HIV since beginning of epidemic

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Richard “Dab” Garner has lived with HIV since the beginning of the epidemic 30 years ago. He has outlived his best friend, two life partners and a 4-year-old foster daughter. Each died of AIDS.

“A lot of us who survived in the ’80s and ’90s had survivors’ guilt. We weren’t doing anything different from anyone else who had HIV, but they were dying and we were still alive,” said Garner, now 49 and an AIDS activist living in Wilton Manors.

But with new drugs developed in the mid-’90s, more people are living with AIDS. Some, like Garner, have likely survived due to genetic anomalies that give them an extra edge. Others have benefitted from HIV-suppressant drugs.

HIV destroys a type of white blood cell often called a “T cell.” Normal T-cell counts often range between 500 and 1,800 per cubic millimeter of blood and anyone with a T-cell count below 200 is considered to have AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“At my low point, I went down to four T cells in the summer of ’94,” said Garner, whose count now hovers between 300 and 400. “It’s not the greatest in the world, but as long as they stay above 200, I’m happy.”

Born to “a very large Greek-Italian family” in Pensacola in 1962, Garner met his first boyfriend, Derek, the summer before his junior year in high school. Garner was a teen fashion model; Derek was a photographer for a shoot. “He was several years older. He thought I was in college when I was still in high school. I didn’t think to tell him otherwise.”

Garner moved to San Francisco with Derek. “After growing up in a small southern town … it was like coming home. You finally found you are not the only person who is gay.”

He and Derek had a monogamous relationship, Garner recalls. “I didn’t know anything about protected sex then. What I remember of the ’70s, not many people practiced safe sex.”

In February 1981, Garner’s best friend Philip, 25, became ill and developed “purple splotches” across his body. He was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, later associated with AIDS.

Philip suffered extreme weight loss and fever. He was quarantined: “Even the doctors wore protective clothing to prevent them from catching whatever it was.’’

Garner gave his friend a teddy bear to hold “because he couldn’t have someone to hold him.”

Less than three weeks later, Philip was dead. At that time, doctors had seen several similar cases in San Francisco and had known of a few others in New York City. “They knew something was up — that it was mainly gay men.”

Two months later, Derek became ill. Doctors said Derek had “GRID — gay-related immune deficiency,” Garner said. “The first article I remember seeing was later that year, in ’81 or ’82, in The Village Voice in New York City, that this was affecting gay men, but they didn’t know what caused it.”

Garner kept a vigil at the hospital, and gave Derek a teddy bear to hold onto. “I could see him and he could see me from the other side of a window. I literally stood by that window for 11 days.’’

Derek died at 28. Then Garner began feeling ill with “what I thought was just a cold.” But he didn’t get better. He was hospitalized in February of 1982. On Valentine’s Day, doctors told him that he, too, had “GRID.”

“They also told me I would probably never make it out of the hospital alive ... They told me I wouldn’t live to see my 20th birthday.”

For two weeks, doctors gave Garner massive amounts of antibiotics and he got better. Doctors at the time called it “a miracle.”

It took two decades before Garner learned what probably saved him: He has a gene anomaly called CCR5 Delta 32 that helps him fight HIV.

“If you ever hear of 20- and 30-year survivors, they almost all have this gene anomaly,’’ he says. “It doesn’t prevent you from catching it. Most are people of European descent, whose families survived the Black Plague.”

After he left the hospital, Garner became an activist to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS.

In 1984, Garner met Brad, an HIV-positive man who became his second partner. The couple became foster parents to a baby girl named Candace, who was born with HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“They didn’t expect her to live more than a few months. We didn’t know how long we were going to live ourselves,” Garner said. “We went into the little nursery. Here’s this little girl all by herself in this little plastic incubator. No one was taking care of her. It brought back all the nightmares of these friends dying and me being in quarantine myself. We decided to take her home and feel as loved as any child could for whatever time she had.”

When Candace began to talk, she wasn’t able to say the word dad — it came out “Dab,” giving Garner his nickname.

Candace lived only to age 4, dying in August 1989. Three months later, Brad also died.

But from their deaths, a tradition was born. After Candace died, Garner gave all her toys to other sick children. They also got teddy bears, a gift he continues to give sick children today called “Teddy Bear Touchdown.”

“I do it in her memory,” he said.

Garner has had two bouts of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, once in Los Angeles and again when he moved back to Florida in 2000 to nurse his mother, who died three years later.

Garner, who lives on disability, moved to Wilton Manors in 2009. He has found love again, with a new partner who also lives with AIDS. They met a year ago at the Gay Men’s Health Summit in Fort Lauderdale. Garner devotes his well time to AIDS activism, working with the Broward County Health Department and other agencies to develop new HIV prevention programs.

“Dab has been living with the disease for 30 years and uses his experiences to educate and help others,” said Terry DeCarlo, a spokesman for the AIDS agency Broward House who has known him about seven years. “That is his legacy. He’s not dying from it, he is living with it.”

30 Years of AIDS: Dab Garner from HealthyState.org on Vimeo.

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My friend, and hometown hero. As an HIV-positive person, it is IMPARATIVE that we have individuals in the community that can openly share their journey with the world. It is because of people like Dab that I am so open with my own status and do what I can to help others. The sad thing is that 30 years later, Dab is STILL having to bring awareness to this horrific disease. The apathy and ignorance still has to be fought both near and large by people like my hero Dab Garner.

Hope you get well soon. I pray god to make your life stunning and beauty with lots of joy.

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