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H.I.V. Survivors Confront Painful Memories and New Risks in Pandemic


Doug Bennett, 70, left, and Jim Morgan, 66, with their dog Cooper. Photo: Nick Roberts

July 20, 2020

In a 15-minute trip to the pharmacy, Jim Morgan, 66, had touched the entrance door, the checkout counter and his face.

“I felt like I was covered in red ants because I felt so contaminated,” Mr. Morgan said.

When he returned to the car with his partner, Doug Bennett, 70, Mr. Morgan took off his mask, his gloves and his shirt, and started washing himself in hand sanitizer.

This was not the future Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett imagined when they moved from Northern California to the Coachella Valley town of Desert Hot Springs six years ago. They were seeking quieter lives, as well as refuge from illnesses they had both struggled with.

But for Mr. Morgan and many others who have migrated to the small towns around Palm Springs, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing them to grapple with painful memories of another deadly threat — the H.I.V.-AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. It was a frightening time, when they lost close friends and loved ones, and, for Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett, when they first learned they were H.I.V. positive.

The Palm Springs area is often described as 50 percent retired and 50 percent gay, with plenty of overlap. The city and its growing suburbs have become a hub for long-term survivors of H.I.V., with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people with H.I.V. living in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.

Long-term H.I.V. survivors, many of whom have severely compromised immune systems, are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Over time, the cocktails of medications used to keep the disease at bay can cause other illnesses. On top of that is the simple fact of aging.

“There is panic and anxiety,” Dr. Jill Gover, a psychologist at the Desert AIDS Project, said. “In this pandemic, once again, they are the highest-risk groups.”

Before Covid-19, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett often held dinner parties at their home, nestled on a bluff overlooking Palm Springs. But that ended in February when Mr. Morgan began seeing stories about Covid-19. He had flashbacks to Mr. Bennett — his partner of 36 years — on the verge of death. For much of the 1990s, Mr. Bennett was bedridden with Reiter’s syndrome — a form of arthritis that inflamed his knees and elbows. His weight dipped below 100 pounds. “I got by from minute to minute,” Mr. Bennett said.

In March, just before California issued its stay-at-home order, Mr. Morgan posted a letter on Facebook and phoned friends to tell them he and Mr. Bennett were starting a home quarantine. Mr. Morgan counts each day spent in isolation on a calendar. They just passed Day 134.

“I felt very vulnerable, scared,” said Ric West, an H.I.V. survivor who received a cancer diagnosis in June. Photo: Nick Roberts

After a career selling photographic film to Silicon Valley start-ups, Ric West, 67, moved to Palm Springs last fall. Mr. West has been living with H.I.V. since the 1990s, and his new doctor in Palm Springs ran a gamut of tests to better understand his health. In early June, he got an unwelcome diagnosis: He had aggressive prostate cancer that needed to be removed quickly.

“It took a while to hit then the reality of it all during this time of pandemic,” Mr. West said. “I felt very vulnerable, scared.”

The cancer was removed successfully last week and he is recovering at home. His boyfriend, Michael Felenchak, 34, is helping Mr. West quarantine as fully as possible, buying him groceries, cooking and cleaning around the house.

“He’s been my champion,” Mr. West said.

Mr. West’s friend and fellow H.I.V. survivor, Marty Fritz, 62, also received a diagnosis of prostate cancer in early July. His cancer is less aggressive than Mr. West’s, but the talk of quarantining and isolating throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has taken him back to the chaos of the AIDS crisis.

As AIDS spread, people lost jobs, housing, friends and their lives as the federal government dragged its feet in acknowledging the disease.

“Politicians were demanding doctors report us so they could quarantine us,” Mr. West said.

The lasting trauma of the H.I.V.-AIDS crisis pushed Mr. West into years of addiction to methamphetamines. When he was deciding where to retire, he looked for a community with dependable H.I.V. health services and a strong recovery community. Palm Springs turned out to be a perfect fit.

His recovery meetings have largely shifted to Zoom, and he’s realized his experience with H.I.V. helps him coach others through the fear of this current pandemic. He helps members of his recovery group process their anxiety over the coronavirus, and it’s been surprisingly helpful for him, too.

“It gives me purpose,” he said. “It makes everything that I went through back then not without purpose.”

Marty Fritz, 62, and his husband, Dennis Smith, 75, at their home in Palm Springs. Photo: Nick Roberts


Production Staff & Crew

Nick Roberts

Nick Roberts ( 2020 )

Reporter, Photographer