My name is Bryan Fleury, and I’m from West Springfield, a small town in western Massachusetts. I just celebrated my 40th birthday, even though at one time I thought I’d never see my 30th.
I grew up playing sports of all kinds - my first pair of shoes were cleats. I graduated from high school in 1984. AIDS was around, but it was a taboo topic at school. All I knew about it at the time was “if I wasn’t gay I’d be OK” - pure ignorance, but I didn’t know better back then.
After high school I played soccer in Europe: Blackpool, Liverpool, Lancaster, London and Edinborough. When I came back home I joined the Army National Guard, which paid for college. I went to Fitchburg State to continue my soccer career.
I didn’t last too long in college - I was done when the soccer season ended. My next love was softball. (It still is. I just ended my 20th season with another championship!) My friends and I used to go out to bars to pick up women. We called it “sharking,” and we all had the knack. The only protection I used was “trust.” I thought I was a great judge of character, not knowing character has nothing to do with AIDS. At the time, I didn’t know that AIDS doesn’t discriminate and has no conscience.
In the summer of 1990, I met my boss’ daughter at an Army National Guard family picnic. He wasn’t too happy, because I had a reputation as a wild man and a womanizer. On our second date she told me someday we’d be married, and it turned out she was right. We got engaged the following summer. Everyone said we were rushing things, so we agreed to wait until the holidays were over to make plans.
On November 16, 1991, I went to an Army National Guard drill, and this one was different. They had Military Police at the door. I was told they were having mandatory testing for AIDS: once you arrived you weren’t allowed to leave until you were tested. I stood in line with my future father-in-law, confident because I was a strong, stocky kid who never even had a common cold and hated taking any kind of medication.
There were three AIDS posters on the wall, and they were my first AIDS 101 crash course. The first poster said that AIDS could be spread through unprotected homosexual sex. I already knew that, and assumed I would be fine since that wasn’t my lifestyle. The second talked about intravenous drug use. Again, no problem. That’s never been part of my lifestyle.
Then came poster number three, and I felt like the poster child. It was about unprotected heterosexual sex. I thought about all those nights of not wearing a condom. But I had to look cool and calm with my future father-in-law next to me in line. I took the test and they said they’d contact us by mail if there was a problem.
Weeks went by and I didn’t hear a thing. I enjoyed the holidays with the test completely out of my mind. On January 2, 1992, my girlfriend and I started making our wedding plans. By the end of the week, everything from the cake to the DJ had been ordered.
On February 7th, 1992 - almost four months after I took the AIDS test - I received a letter from the Army saying that, as a result of the blood work drawn on November 16, 1991, I was disqualified from active duty in the National Guard.
My first reaction was, “Holy Shit!” I was scared - but I didn’t think the worst because I was healthy as a horse, I had a good job, my future wife was a legal secretary, we were in the process of buying a house, I was the player/coach on a men’s soccer team - life was GOOD!
I remember the day I drove to the Army headquarters on the other side of Massachusetts in my beautiful red convertible. It was a freaky day at the end of February when the temperature got up into the low 70s, which to me was warm enough to put the top down. I loved attention and pulled through the gate with my stereo blaring.
I’m waited in a dingy room until a soldier walked in with a ramrod up his ass. He asked my name, rank and serial number. He asked if I was married or had kids. He started to seem very nervous, which made me nervous. To break the ice, I started talking enthusiastically about my wedding plans.
He interrupted by asking if I even knew why I was there. I told him I got a letter in the mail, but there must be some mistake. “There’s no mistake,” he said. “You’ve got AIDS and you’re going to die.” You have to realize that this was before there was any effective treatment for AIDS, and people were dropping like flies.
I remember thinking, “My God, I’ll never see 30-years-old.” (I was 25 at the time.) I walked out to my car, hiding behind sunglasses, turned down the stereo and put the top up. It never came down again.
When I picked up my future wife at work that afternoon and she asked me what happened, I had such a lump in my throat that I couldn’t talk. I finally blurted it out, and she started crying uncontrollably. The worst part is that I told her she had to get tested because I may have infected her.
Not knowing where to get tested, we spoke to the priest who was due to marry us. I remember praying, “Please, please, please, let this woman be healthy and Ill never again put anybody at risk for this disease.” The priest directed us to Planned Parenthood. Two weeks later the results came back, and she was HIV-negative. That was a great day, trust me!
I felt like I had killer cooties, and I asked her if she wanted to call off the wedding. I felt unworthy of love. She told me she loved me and we could get through this. We stayed uneducated and never touched each other again. We went through with the wedding, but the only time we kissed was when the priest said, “You may kiss the bride.” That was a very awkward moment.
We divorced after two years and I moved in next door to my parents. After keeping it a secret for almost three years, I wrote them a letter telling them I had AIDS. I could have just walked next door, but I was embarrassed to face them.
That was when I started dealing with my diagnosis. My parents urged me to go to the doctor. Finding a qualified professional in this area was tough, but I finally went to see Dr. Gary Reiter. He retested my blood and told me had good news and bad news. The good news was that, although I was HIV-positive, I didn’t have AIDS. The bad news was that I had to start taking medication.
This was in the early days of HIV treatment, and I started taking 33 pills a day. I’ll never forget the exact number because that was Larry Bird’s basketball number. I was taking pills morning, afternoon and night, some on an empty stomach, some with food, and some that had to be refrigerated. My whole life revolved around a medicine cabinet.
I put myself in isolation for the next four or five years. I hid from everybody. Soon lipodystrophy and lipoatrophy took over. I looked like a freak and felt like I had a scarlet letter on my forehead. I avoided mirrors and wouldn’t let anybody take a picture of me.
Finally I had a plastic surgeon sew Gortex pads into my cheeks, and decided to come out of my self-imposed isolation. I started educating myself about HIV and looking for love on the Internet. Someone told me about Positive Connections in Miami, which offers cruises for HIV-positive heterosexuals. My claim to fame is that I’m the only person in the US who has been on every cruise so far. This month will be my ninth cruise, and I’ve made so many great friends. I finally found true love along the way at a Valentine Party in New York sponsored by Positive Connections. My girlfriend Millie is the most important person ever to enter my life. She’s just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside. Our cruise this month will be our fourth together. The cruise has now opened up to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals which just adds up to even more awesome people.
I now work for Planned Parenthood doing HIV prevention at high schools across Massachusetts - totally my calling! I’m so lucky to have an undetectable viral load. I’m on once-a-day meds: Reyataz, Norvir and Truvada - a far cry from the 33 pills I started with! I totally believe this is a manageable disease if you avoid isolation.
I was recently hired by Bristol-Myers Squibb to go on a Satellite Media Tour and talk about the advances in medication in the 25 years since AIDS started. I did 24 live TV and radio interviews that were shown on more than 900 stations with an audience reach of more than 136,000,000 people.
Other than Millie, the best thing about AIDS is that it’s preventable…
Best wishes to everyone!
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
This magazine is intended to enhance your relationship with your doctor - not replace it! Medical treatments and products should always be discussed with a licensed physician who has experience treating HIV and AIDS!