HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Sarah Thomas found out from a stranger.
It was 1996, and after donating blood in Baltimore, a Red Cross worker called Thomas back into her office. It was there that the worker slid a drab folder across the table. Inside it was a paper flagged with the letters, “HIV.”
“And that was it,” Thomas recalls. “No hug. No, I’m sorry. Just here’s your diagnosis, go deal with it.”
This was two years after she believes she contracted the virus through sex with a man who later died from it. And while she had her suspicions before then, there was something about the proof staring back at her in big, dot matrix letters that no amount of worrying could have prepared her for.
She immediately called her sister, Stacia. “I said `It’s bad. You gotta meet me.”’
Stacia agreed, and in a car parked near Maryland’s Loch Raven reservoir, a shimmering man-made pool and the source of Baltimore’s drinking water, Thomas broke the news.
The silence was almost certainly deafening. Thomas can’t be sure, though, with much of that day still a blur some 20 years later.
She remembers they cried together. And she remembers swearing her sister to secrecy.
It would take their mother six more years to find out.
`Dying wasn’t the problem’
Theirs was a big family, a tight family, and Thomas was the black sheep.
She was born in Philadelphia in 1962, the second of four children born to her mother, a former legal secretary, and ad-man father whose work included Chevy’s “Lean on Me” campaign in 1991.
They later relocated to Grosse Point, Mich., a wealthy suburb of Detroit, and again to north Hollywood, where Thomas counted Bob Hope among her neighbors and Lou Costello’s granddaughter as her best friend.
She still remembers the life-size nativity scenes at Hope’s house each Christmas.
From there, a dizzying string of moves followed, between Washington state and Michigan, Maryland and Florida.
“Family geographic cures ran deep,” she says, seated in an empty conference room at PinnacleHealth Polyclinic in Harrisburg where she now receives treatment.
After high school, she went to paralegal school partly in an attempt to appease her mother who had always told her “learn to type and you’ll have a job forever.”
But Thomas found the work unfulfilling and quickly grew restless.
She freely admits to compensating with drugs, men and extramarital affairs during this time, trading one dysfunctional marriage for another and often lesser risks for greater ones.
“I am built for chaos and I can handle a lot of it,” she says.
HIV would test this mantra, although not immediately.
In 2000, Thomas was hospitalized for AIDS-related complications and given two days to live _ her T-cell count had fallen to 40.
She eventually recovered and was released from the hospital, but back at work as a paralegal the restlessness returned.
Thomas had dabbled in drugs in her young adult life before getting clean in 1982. But 19 years later she decided rather impulsively to visit a Harrisburg drug corner one day after work.
She pulled up in a white Buick and dressed sharply in a Halston suit, her paralegal uniform, traded in her drug-free lifestyle for a binge fueled by crack and more than likely her own growing sense of mortality. Thomas maintains it was actually living that scared her.
“To me dying wasn’t the problem. It was being sick and immobile and not being able to work,” she says. “I was scared of not being able to do anything with the rest of my life.”
And so she raged. It would take her a long time to come down.
`Secrets keep you sick’
When Thomas eventually regained her sobriety _ she is in the midst of a separate and nearly six-year stretch now _ she looked around at her life and bristled.
That sense of frustration prompted her to buckle down with treatments and get plugged in to a support network like never before.
Today, she’s the antithesis of public perceptions of AIDS patients as withering and ghostly, gaunt and jaundiced.
She’s built like Olive Oyl, tall and reed-like, and whisks herself down the clinic’s tiled hallways, greeting staffers and fellow patients along the way, most of whom she knows by name. In these moments she appears almost mayoral.
In private, she thinks fast and speaks faster, flitting from subject to subject, future tense to past and back again, often all in the same breath.
To converse with her is to submit. It is also to startle at her candor.
“Secrets keep you sick,” she offers.
Thomas usually talks about her past and disease in the bluntest terms imaginable, and her brashness and dark humor frequently come across as an attempt to guard herself against the world outside or the vulnerabilities within.
This as the HIV virus had ravaged her immune system and led to the development of full-blown AIDS, considered the final stage of an infection.
She is frequently treated for run-of-the-mill conditions like ear infections and sore throats that could signal _ or become _ something far more serious.
The hazards are everywhere for Thomas, who lives with her school-age daughter, husband and two cats. Her husband and daughter are not infected.
Hand washing is frequent in their home and hand sanitizers a must outside of it.
But Thomas, always the fearless chaos warrior, regularly pushes her luck and the boundaries of medical advice. She eats sushi and changes cat litter, both mundane but, for her, potentially dangerous activities because of the risk of infection.
She returns to the idea that maybe for her a life without some risk isn’t worth living.
Her insurance policy against total catastrophe is a daily regimen of medications, the highly evolved and slimmed-down cousins of those she was first prescribed after beginning treatment in 2000.
Thomas said the new anti-retrovirals are light-years ahead of where they were, meaning better results and fewer side effects, but not always lower costs. She estimates her medications cost Medicare $5,000 a month.
They are washed down each morning with a pot of coffee.
`It shouldn’t have happened to me’
The progress in medications means AIDS is no longer a “death sentence.” But Thomas knows it’s still deadly.
She lists the names of fellow Harrisburg patients who have lost their battles with the disease. Some of them she knew well.
And where she once kept her status a secret from loved ones, she’s now committed to sharing her story with anyone who will listen _ for their sake as much as hers.
“Secrets keep you sick,” she says again.
But Thomas is also worried about what they do to others, namely how refusing to talk about HIV and AIDS helps ensure their continuation.
As a White woman, Thomas is a minority in the AIDS community, and that’s partly the point. There’s still an “otherness” about HIV for much of White America. It’s the same perceived distance that used to shroud the drug epidemic in their communities until rates of drug use and drug deaths began to skyrocket there, too.
Like Thomas, an estimated 84 percent of women with HIV and AIDS were infected through heterosexual sex, which remains the most common cause for women. Black and Latina women remain disproportionately impacted, though.
While White women make up 63 percent of the nation’s female population, they account for only 18 percent of new HIV cases. This compared to Hispanic women who make up 16 percent of the female population and 15 percent of new HIV cases, and Black women who make up 13 percent of the female population and 64 percent of new HIV cases.
The group most at risk remains gay African American men, and while transgender women are believed to be the fastest-growing HIV-positive population in the U.S., anyone having unprotected sex remains vulnerable.
Thomas wants more people from all backgrounds talking about the disease, which she hopes will lead to more people getting tested and more people taking precautions. She hopes that by talking openly about it she can spur those in the white and heterosexual communities to realize this affects them, too.
“I’m doing this because I need everyone to know that not everybody’s gay or transsexual, or got it through gay contact. I was heterosexual and I was married and I was in denial,” Thomas says.
“There is so much denial `cause there’s still so much stigma and there’s even more stigma for the hetero WASP community. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and I wasn’t expected to get AIDS.”
The realization burns today just as it did when she was seated in the Red Cross office or across from her sister in the car.
“Based on my upbringing it shouldn’t have happened to me,” she says.
She pauses, “But it did.”