Bob Leahy: I know you have a passion for health and nutrition. I wanted to ask you where does that come from and how does it relate to your own journey with HIV.
Rick Schack: Well, when I got my diagnosis in 1996 they said I had four to seven years to live . .
So you started paying attention.
No, for the first three years I partied my butt off, I went to raves, I did lots of drugs. If I was going to die I wanted to live.
So what changed things?
Well three years in, I went and got some bloodwork done, and things changed. My CD4 was very high, I was very low virally and everything the doctors said would happen wasn’t coming to pass. So I was thinking they don’t seem to know what they are talking about. So I started reading everything I could about HIV, genetics, how the disease affects your immune system.
At what time did you start on antiretroviral therapy?
It was about seven years after I was diagnosed. Nothing had changed but I got a new doctor and he decided to put me on. And at that point all, the problems started. I’m the kind of person that if there is a side effect from any kind of medication, I’m going to have it. I ended up getting an enlarged liver from them and it was really uncomfortable and I had night terrors and anxiety. And this is the time when I started getting deep into learning about how meds affect your liver – foods I can eat, things that I can do to help. And it really helped. It really saved me. It brought so much comfort to my life and helped me maintain a healthy weight.
So your emphasis on good nutrition was driven by an attempt to reduce side effects.
Yes, I was attending festivals – I’m a pagan – and I met a person at a festival that had her own school. She does everything in a holistic way. I ended up working there.
So is a holistic approach particularly relevant to HIV?
Well, most of the people I work with are not HIV-positive. I feel people think they have made enough compromises in their life already. Many have handed their life over to a doctor who tells them what medications to take; they often haven’t done anything to change their lifestyle.
So if you could have magical powers what would you like to see happen?
I would actually like to see a discussion around holistic health, because I think the HIV community has really been controlled by the pharmaceutical industry. My approach isn’t that people shouldn’t go on medication. I’m saying use holistic approaches in combination with antiretroviral therapy. For example you take ginger every day, it’s an anti-inflammatory and it’s a pain killer, and it’s not going to damage you. And it’s cheap.
Ok, so if someone is starting on medications and they do experience side effects, what would you say they should do?
I would say to people who are HIV-positive that they should read. They should know just as much as their doctor. And if they don’t have that skill, find somebody who can be on their side who can help them. I just feel that discussions about holistic health haven’t been born into the community yet.
So leaving side effects aside, for a person living with HIV, what can a person with HIV do just to feel better, live better, and live a healthier life, would you say?
More anti-inflammatories, number one. And anybody who is HIV-positive, I would throw out your microwave. When you get away from the microwave you get away from instant foods. You start cooking your own meals. Stop eating processed foods and start eating whole foods. I’m not saying you have to become vegan or vegetarian. Get away from factory foods. Start getting food from local farmers, local vegetables.
Is that a more expensive way of eating or not?
Definitely not. I’ve been eating like this for a long time, I live on a subsidized income and I eat really well. I always have food and my food is all local. And I mostly buy organic. The prices are a little higher for organic but studies are showing that if you eat nutritious food you don’t need to eat as much. You are also getting all the trace minerals your brain and body need. People who are HIV-positive should stay away from refined sugar; it suppresses your immune system. But when I have this conversation people don’t want to hear it. They say “I’m already HIV-positive. Don’t take anything else away from me.”
So what is your answer to that question Rick?
Quality of life. To be able to walk up a flight of stairs. Not having side effects. I feel good. I live this way. I have had some side effects from medications that have hurt me but I’ve attended to food and diet pretty consistently. Not all, the time. I eat pizza. . .
I was going to ask you about that. Tell me about your guilty pleasures. You break the rules sometimes?
I like pizza. Actually it’s not that bad for you. I might have it a couple of times a month. It’s OK to cheat. You can indulge, but not every day. I would try to curb it to maybe once a month.
Some people living on a low fixed income have to rely on food banks. Does that restrict at all your ability to eat healthy?
No it doesn’t. It’s a little tricky but Peterborough for example has a great network for people who are on low income and need to eat good food – there are fresh vegetables, you can get income support and if you are HIV-positive and on ODSP you can get a special diet supplementary income. There is help out there.
Ok Rick. So summing up, if someone living with HIV was on the fence about changing their eating habits, what would be your message?
Well, I’m not saying you have to be 100% holistic or vegan or anything, but if you start doing it now, particularly start having anti-inflammatory foods, you will live to be older. In twenty years’ time you will be less prone to illness and taken steps to protect yourself from the medications. You will have put HIV into remission but it’s the medications you have to deal with. Again it’s about longevity and quality of life. But quality isn’t great when the quality of life sucks.
OK Rick I hear you. Big thanks to talking to us – and good luck.