Behind the volumes of frightening reports about acquired immune deficiency syndrome lie the personal tragedies of the victims. In Canada, there are currently 736 AIDS sufferers facing imminent death. Despite wide publicity given to the killer virus 's potential to move into the heterosexual population—most recently by U.S. sex researchers Dr. William Masters, Virginia Johnson, and Dr.
Robert Kolodny in their book Crisis— the fact remains that 85 per cent of those Canadian victims are adult male homosexuals. Last month Maclean’s Correspondent Victor Janoff spent a day with an AIDS sufferer in Toronto. His report:
He stares bleary-eyed at the empty glass that sits on top of the digital clock beside his bed. “I always wake up at noon and see that glass,” Chuck Grochmal says. “But I never remember having taken those pills.” He is referring to the two ivory-and-blue tablets of azidothymidine (azt)—an antiviral drug taken every four hours to strengthen his weakened immune system—that he swallowed at 8 a.m. After that, Grochmal fell asleep again. Since he was diagnosed as having AIDS in late 1986, he says, there have been days when he can barely get out of bed. “The doctors never told me what I was in for,” says the thin, bearded 35-year-old. “AIDS has changed my life so radically.”
Grochmal heads toward the tiny shower stall in his one-room Toronto basement apartment. After showering he applies an ointment to a rash on his
cheeks—one of many superficial infections that have plagued him since AIDS crippled his immune system. Since 1986 Grochmal has had to use 28 different kinds of medication—a regimen that drives his monthly drug bills up to $2,000, all paid for under the provincial health plan. The drugs have made him a survivor of sorts—of the 1,622 people who have been diagnosed with AIDS in
Canada since the first case was recorded in 1982, 886 have died.
In the process of learning to cope with the deadly disease, Grochmal has also become an activist. He is a member of AIDS Action Now!, an awareness group that was officially launched last month in Toronto and is demanding better health care for AIDS patients and access to drugs unavailable in Canada. Grochmal also counsels other AIDS patients and their close companions and friends. “I get strangers at my door looking for information on AIDS,” he says. “My friends are surprised by how much of an activist I have become.”
He lives in the heart of the downtown area of highrises, renovated townhouses and rooming houses where most of Toronto’s gay community is concentrated. The apartment is cramped— Grochmal cannot open the door without folding up his sofa bed—but he says that he feels lucky to have found a home for only $335 a month, half of his monthly disability pension.
He has a glass of orange juice, feeds Polonius, his hamster, then spends an hour on his Macintosh computer working on AIDS Action Now! business. After
that, Grochmal goes out for coffee at The Second Cup café at the corner of Church and Wellesley streets. Gay couples stop in to chat and pick up copies of Xtra!, the Toronto gay community’s free newspaper. Grochmal runs into six acquaintances. But he says that his social circle has diminished: 25 of his friends now have AIDS, and many others have stopped calling. “They think of me as some kind of toxic swamp monster,” he says bitterly. “But people do not realize that because my immune system is weak, I’m more afraid of catching something from them.”
Grochmal runs some errands and at 4 p.m. he returns home, tired. He flips through his mail while on the phone with an AIDS Action Now! member, discussing the next meeting. The mail includes photos from his sister’s recent wedding in Calgary—Grochmal was too poor and wary of his health to attend— and a euthanasia lobby-group newsletter, which he will give to a friend with AIDS who is contemplating suicide if his pain becomes unbearable. He also phones a computer-users’ organization to ask about programs for the visually impaired—in case he has to use one eventually. One friend, he says, recently went blind because of AIDS. “I want to prepare myself,” Grochmal says.
But after only a brief rest Grochmal has to leave for a 5 p.m. appointment
with his doctor. He estimates that he spends at least eight hours a week keeping different medical appointments to receive treatment for the skin ailments and infectious diseases to which he is now prone. His only extended hos-
pital stay was in October, 1986, when he spent three weeks being treated for AIDS-related pneumonia—an illness that led to his AIDS diagnosis.
The appointment is in the Bay Street office of Dr. Michael Hulton, Grochmal’s personal physician. Hulton’s approach is easygoing. “Is that rouge?” he teases, pointing to the rash on his patient’s face. Then Hulton examines a new rash on Grochmal’s hands and asks about his chronic headaches, which he experienced even before he was diagnosed with AIDS. “You’re beginning to lose flesh on your face,” the doctor says as he weighs Grochmal.
In the past month Grochmal, who now weighs 150 lb., has lost five pounds. But when he arrives at 6:30 at Chaps on Isabella Street, one of more than a dozen gay clubs in Toronto, he orders salad and an eight-ounce steak. Grochmal says that he often has to force himself to eat; since 1986 his senses of taste and smell have been impaired—not a common AIDS complication. “With all these drugs, I could go for days,” he says, “and it would not even occur to me to eat.” After coffee is served, his old friend, Josip, the chef at Chaps, comes out to chat. “Gay men used to spend a lot of time occupied with sex,” Grochmal says as he walks home. “Now we’re busy taking care of ourselves.”
He changes into a pair of tight faded jeans, watches a few minutes of TV, then walks to a gay club called The Barn. Grochmal earns only tips working in the coat-check room. The bar’s owners know of his illness; he uses the job to dispense information on AIDS and keeps an extra chair in the cloakroom for confidential inquiries. Later, as he walks home at 1:30 a.m., he talks about one gay man who approached him. “He said, ‘My lover was diagnosed and I don’t know what to do,’ ” says Grochmal, who briefed the man about counselling and welfare services. “I want people to stop crying and do something,” he says. “If I can get one guy like him to use a condom or just raise hell, my day has been worthwhile.”
Before going to sleep, Grochmal talks about his background: a childhood spent in six different cities, and his arrival 17 years ago in Toronto. He always considered his inability to express emotions as a handicap, he says. Now it has become an asset as AIDS continues to strike his friends and acquaintances. “My friends need people around them who aren’t going to freak out,” he says, swallowing two more AZT tablets. Then he sinks back against the pillows. “People are dying all around me,” he murmurs. “But I’m not dying of AIDS—I am living with AIDS. There is a big difference.” □
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