Twenty Years On
Bob Leahy interviews former dancer, PostiveLite.com columnist John Henry Rombough-Davie about his life, his dreams and his twenty years living with HIV
Bob: Hi John. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Now you’ve had an interesting life - you were a dancer once, I know - and we’ll get back to that in a minute. But let’s start off with the basics. Tell us how old are you?
And you live where?
How do you like living there?
I love the city, it’s grown immensely over the past 17 years I have been residing here.
Now I know you don’t have a boyfriend, but you have pets you're very fond of, right?
Correct. I have a dog named Sadie who is a four-year old jackapoo (Jack Russell/poodle mix). She is as cute as a button and her pic is in one of my previous blogs. I also have two cats which I’ve also mentioned previously. Digby was brought in as a kitten, and JD I adopted as a mature cat last summer. JD formerly was brought in as a stray who walked into a friend’s place of business on King Street in Waterloo. When I went to see him regarding adopting the cat, JD jumped off the pile of boxes and ran straight over to me, which is rather uncommon for cats normally. He’s a beautiful orange-tabby going on five yrs old, and his initials are the same as mine, which sold me on him right away. JD for him stands for Jack Daniels however. Digby is also going on five years old, he’s a black cat with silky fur and a bushy tail. He’s also a very good looking cat, but unlike JD has not been fixed. I tried to break up a cat fight one Sunday morning, as a female cat left her scent in the yard the night before. Poor JD was taking the brunt of it, so I chose to intervene, and the outcome was me being treated with antibiotics intravenously for a week. They all get along famously. Unfortunately, having been contacted by Public Health, I haven’t let the cats out in the yard since this happened. I feel bad as they love to be in the front yard, but currently I can’t afford to get Digby his shots or fixed at the present time. JD has even been microchipped, but that’s an additional expense I won’t be able to afford for Digby. Animals are a great form of therapy, just like having children around. They offer their own needs and love. I’ve had pets for many years, and even spoke of a few I had in the past in previous blogs.
I remember that. Now I want to talk about HIV for a bit. When were you diagnosed and in what circumstances?
In 1993 by my family Doctor in my hometown London, Ontario and I had to go by myself to the appointment, as my partner at that time was driving for a living and was in the States. He was the one that suggested I get tested as I was battling chronic fatigue, and that was during the time that HIV was still in it’s early days, and some felt that all gay men should be getting tested, as it seemed to be only affecting them.
Were you expecting to test positive?
Well, he had already been my family doctor for many years, so I naturally went there to be tested, as this was all new to me. I did not have any assumptions that I might test positive, I was just concerned with why I was always so tired and this was certainly not common for me, having been so physically active. My doctor mentioned the day that I was tested that the office would call if my tests came back positive. So needless to say, panic began to set in when the phone rang.
So do you remember the words they used to tell you the news?
That I tested positive for HIV and my family doctor would no longer be able to treat me as his patient
And what was your reaction?
Numb and scared
Oh dear. Since then, how has it been mentally?
A struggle and at times angry with myself that I was not better educated
What about your numbers. Are you doing OK today in terms of CD4 levels and viral load?
Yes. I’m currently undetectable, and my CD4 is over 500. When I was first diagnosed in 1993, my CD4 was at 300. However, about 5 years ago when I was hospitalized my CD4 was about 7. I had picked up an opportunistic Infection which nearly killed me and I was at that time weighing only 90lbs. When I do public speaking I like to emphasize that it’s not HIV that kills, rather an opportunistic infection that puts the body at risk. That’s why I get frustrated when people who are HIV+ are stigmatized for having AIDS. I’m only one of many who are long time survivors, next year being my 20th year. This is certainly one of the many reasons why I’m proud to this day of who I’ve become with the struggles of HIV and it’s unnecessary stigmatization by society at large.
Have you yourself experienced much stigma as a result of being HIV-positive?
Somewhat, as I mentioned, but mostly because of the negativity as a whole with regards to the virus and the community at large that’s created such difficulty over the years in portraying us as civilized human beings, who also have goals and dreams just the same as everyone else.
So what would you say your biggest daily challenges are – and what do you do about them?
Side effects at times.........I try to keep motivated and rest when necessary if possible. It’s also an on-going struggle to want to be a part of society, fulfilling these goals, but the limitations physically at times prevent this from being a reality. Employers get frustrated, disability gets frustrated, as we continue fighting this disease together with respect to this still being a chronic but liveable disease.
You’ve talked about your career in dance before, but do you want to talk about that now? What period did that cover? And you were living where then?
I began training at the age of 10 and retired around the age of 30.....................all my earlier training took place in London, Ontario.
Was it difficult for a boy to get in to a ballet career? Were your parents on side, for instance?
No, as there was a shortage of boys , in fact I was the only boy in my dance school during most of my earlier training....................my parents were very supportive and encouraged me all the way.
How far did you get?
I performed professionally for seven years travelling extensively across Canada, dancing lead roles with four different companies.
What happened that made you give it up?
Fatigue, and my body was shutting down, I suppose. I’m convinced now that I contracted HIV during my travels.
How do you feel about that now? Does it bother you?
At times it does, as I wonder if I would still be dancing to this day. I really only miss it when I go to see a performance, and I miss the daily training and exercise
Do you have ambitions still – not necessarily about dance, but in other areas?
Yes, but it to is a struggle some days overriding the side effects, as well as, trying to remain neutral with respect to how long do we have to live..............re long term side effects due to medications. I like to override these feelings with reassuring myself that I’m a good person, I’m happy doing what I’m capable of doing on a daily basis, and still giving back to others.
You’ve talked about how volunteering for your ASO (AIDS Service Organization) has helped you. Do you want to talk about the differences you’ve seen in yourself as a result of that?
I feel connected with myself again, as well as I connect with others a lot more easily. I feel empowered knowing I’m helping others to cope with day to day living, and this also helps me not to feel disconnected. It has provided me with challenges to become a better person in the community, and not to feel ashamed of myself when I decide to open myself up to the public by way of the Speaker’s Bureau. I feel it important to educate around HIV/AIDS, as we are all vulnerable to make unwise decisions at times, not knowing the outcome of those decisions. I also feel the importance of giving back to an agency that is reaching out to the community for the good of others.
John, tell us something about yourself that hardly anyone knows.
I feel a strong spiritual connection, and this encourages me to not be afraid of who I am.
OK. One final question, John, What would you say to someone who has just found out they are HIV-positive?
To absolutely NOT let the term HIV+ scare you in to thinking you’re a bad person or even an absolute threat to your life. The important thing to remember is that you are NOT ALONE, and knowing medications exist ...........there are always side effects with respect to any medication. A phrase I heard recently is that your HIV status lives with you, you don’t live with it..................this I think helps you to remain in control of your own life as it was prior to being diagnosed HIV+.