As AIDS Walk nears, Team MCC’s leader talks about why this cause is personal

Editor’s note: Again this year, a team from MCC will take part in AIDS Walk Kansas City, which raises money to help local people with HIV/AIDS. The event will be Saturday, April 29, at Theis Park, 47th and Oak streets. Participants are asked to be there at 9 a.m.; the 3-mile walk starts at 10.

MCC-Penn Valley’s Nancy Harrington has been team captain since 2005. If you’d like to make a donation or walk the walk, go to Harrington’s AIDS Walk fundraising page. Find the link at the bottom of this post.

Why is this cause so important to Harrington, the science/math/engineering chair at Penn Valley? Here’s her story in her own words.

Harrington

By Nancy Harrington

AIDS: Who cares?

Now that I have your attention:  I, for one, do care.  I know I am not alone in that, and I am not as deeply affected by the virus as many millions of people.  But, as removed as I can consider myself from the epidemic — the pandemic — I care.

What does the scourge of this virus have to do with me?  Women my age (baby boomers) worry about other things, surely.  Born between 1946 and 1964, by now we have just celebrated 50 years, or are nearing 70 years alive on this planet.  This means many of us have created our families one way or another, and are in the process of watching the young ones grow and grow away.  Many of us are grandparents.  Many of us never settled on one long-term partner, or have chosen not to parent and live our lives child-free.  Whatever the configuration, our age gives us the perspective of experience, and the hope of real change.

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a condition that arises as a result of infection with the virus called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).  The virus, when contracted, attacks the strongest and smartest of all of the white blood cells charged with fighting infections.  Our immune system is designed to recognize intruders, known and unknown, and use a variety of methods to isolate, debilitate, destroy and eliminate them.  When the process is compromised by HIV, these immune cells can no longer function and, worse yet, serve as incubators for the production of more viruses.

If that sounds clinical and complex, try this:  It was 1986.  My friend Bob was a strong, tall, handsome man with a soft, deep voice and a gentle way of moving.  He shared with me that he, like many of his friends, did not want to be tested for the virus at first.  His logical mind told him that as long as he felt well and seemed healthy, why should he seek information that would confirm his early death? There was no effective treatment or medication; no hope.

My friend Bob eventually did get tested.  He had the virus.  So he quit his job, educated himself about HIV, and began to volunteer as a guest speaker in schools and community groups.  Bob made quite an impact, with his large brown eyes and soothing tone.  When he stood up to speak, he would start by clearing his throat, scanning the room slowly, and then he would say, “I have attended 60 funerals in the past three months.”

After harboring the virus in his formerly powerful and invincible white blood cells for a time, he developed a number of opportunistic infections.  Healthy people are exposed to these infections every day, and with efficient immune systems, they do not become ill.  People like Bob cannot fight these ubiquitous invaders, and this plus a low number of immune cells qualifies them for a diagnosis of AIDS.

Nancy Harrington’s friend Bob threw himself a giant “party in the woods” shortly before he died. Harrington is second from right.

Bob and I worked together and gave many presentations together in those years. I was the biologist, the educator, the youth advocate, and he was The Face of AIDS.  After a heroic journey, Bob died in 1990.  His quiet voice will echo for years in the hearts and minds of those who sat quietly listening to his story.

Nearly 37 million people globally are now living with HIV. Over 1.2 million of them are Americans, and only 12 percent of them have any idea they are infected.  Every day about 5,600 people contract HIV — more than 230 every hour. Around Kansas City, there are nearly 5,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the 11-county region.  Infection rates are on the rise for black males, minority females and young adults.

Why? Why? Why?  Because it’s about SEX?  Well, it’s more than that.

The virus doesn’t really care how it invades the bloodstream. There are various routes to reach its destination.  One is to be directly placed into the blood through a break in the skin.  Another is to be directly placed onto a delicate mucous membrane richly supplied with blood vessels.

Who is likely to contract the virus by any of these methods?  Anyone.  Repeat:  Anyone.  In our imagination, fear and denial create a massive group of people who are at risk. The interesting common feature of this cast of thousands is that They Do Not Look Like Me.  I do not inject drugs into my skin with used needles.  I do not share a blood supply with others.  And I certainly do not want to discuss the use of my mucous membranes. 

As long as any route of transmission involves sexuality, intimacy, mucous membranes or bodily fluids exchanged, we don’t want to hear about it.  As long as any form of prevention involves talking frankly about sexuality with our children, our grandchildren, our partners, our peers or our parents, we don’t want to hear about it.  It’s easier to float down that majestic river in Egypt (Da Nile), dipping our toes in the water whenever we jolly well feel like it.

My friend Bob was so sad to think of losing his life early.  He was so sad to see how much resistance there was to learning about, preventing and perhaps curing the virus.  But he had hope: “I would like to see a cure in my lifetime.”  Unfortunately, his lifetime was too short, and we are still waiting.

My goal is not as lofty as Bob’s, but perhaps as important.  In my lifetime, I hope to see many more of us learn to talk openly, frankly and clearly about the full spectrum of our sexuality in all its forms and expressions.  It’s a step in the right direction, and that road could lead to saving lives.  Please join me in hope and action.

On Saturday, April 29, I will be leading my team in AIDS Walk Kansas City.  I have been team captain for Metropolitan Community College (Team MCCKC) since 2005, and we have raised thousands of dollars to benefit local folks with HIV/AIDS.

Harrington’s fundraising website for AIDS Walk Kansas City 2017:

aidswalkkansascity.org/harrington2017

Find out more about AIDSWalk Kansas City:

www.aidswalkkansascity.org