“When the photographer told me that I'd be doing the shoot with someone named Hassan, I was like, nah, it can't be,” Andrea Lamour-Harrington says about being contacted by Philadelphia photographer Holly Clark to be featured on the cover of POSITIVELY AWARE’s Hepatitis Drug Guide.
Andrea, 54, who identifies as trans, and Hassan J. Gibbs, 63, who is gay, are cousins who lost touch nearly five years ago, and each had been asked to take part in this issue’s cover shoot. But this was more than a family reunion on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hassan had been Andrea’s mentor years earlier at Philadelphia FIGHT, learning to live and thrive with HIV and hepatitis C.
“I discovered I was HIV positive on December 12, 1988,” Andrea says. Pausing to reflect on that, she lets out an audible sigh. “It was around the time that Liberace died. I knew it was over for me, because if these rich people who could get good medicine could die, I knew with my poor self what my chances were.”
To survive, she turned to sex work. “One night I was getting out of a trick's car, and I looked up at this billboard for something called Philadelphia FIGHT,” she says. “And then I thought, wait a minute—is that my cousin? What's Hassan Gibbs doing on that billboard? At that moment, I said, I want to be a part of a positive message like that. I need to do that; I've got to take care of myself so I can do that.”
Soon after being honorably discharged from the army in 1979, having been a clinical tech, Hassan got a job in a hospital emergency room. Over the years, cleaning needles and other sharps, Hassan says he had sometimes been stuck by them. He was also sexually active and spent lots of money, “partying.”
“I heard about HIV, that it was scary, but a lot of us thought it was a White boy thing,” he says.
He had been selling his blood for extra cash when in March 1985 he received a letter notifying him that his blood would no longer be accepted because it was “contaminated with the HIV virus.” He was advised to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Hassan says he was diagnosed with hep C in 1983, back when it didn't have a name and was only known as non-A, non-B hepatitis. He didn't see a doctor for a couple years, certainly not about his HCV, until he looked in the mirror one day and noticed that his eyes were jaundiced.
By 1991, he was told that his HIV had progressed to the point where he had six months to live. That's when he discovered Philadelphia FIGHT, a health services organization providing primary care, advocacy, and research. Through FIGHT, he found a doctor, and began taking AZT, the only HIV drug available at the time, though often considered toxic by many. Having heard how difficult interferon could be to tolerate, he held off getting HCV treatment.
As his health improved, Hassan joined the organization's Project TEACH (Treatment Education Activists Combating HIV) program as outreach coordinator, going on to be co-lead instructor. He was surprised to discover that his cousin Andrea would be in his class. Receiving medical care at FIGHT, she had been referred to the program. After graduating Project TEACH she started working at FIGHT through AmeriCorps, a volunteer public service organization. She was soon attending various events and presenting at conferences.
Around 2012, something didn't feel quite right to her, and Andrea got tested for hepatitis C. Through FIGHT, she enrolled in a clinical study with interferon.
After a year of weekly injections of interferon, Andrea was cured. Not long afterward, Sovaldi, the first one-pill-a-day treatment for hepatitis C was approved by the FDA in late 2013. “I'm not upset that they soon came up with better treatments,” Andrea says philosophically. “In order to get to point C, you have to start at point A and then get to B.”
Hassan's periodic struggles with depression had gotten the better of him. Unhappy with work, he’d also lost touch with Andrea. Old habits returned.
“It started with beer,” Hassan says. “The Millers turned to 45s, the 45s turned to rum and coke, and the rum and coke turned to crack. All within a six-month period.”
Hassan was incarcerated for felony retail theft, first for three months, the second time for six months, most of which was awaiting trial, where he pled guilty. His parole officer helped him to get into rehab, and reconnected to care afterward. He decided to finally treat his hepatitis C.
Following a FibroScan to measure the amount of liver scarring, Hassan began a 12-week course of Epclusa last January and was cured. These days, he says he's “fabulous again,” finding comfort from stress by tending to his plants.
“As people living with HIV, we need to be mindful of our mental health now more than ever,” Has-san says. “Just an hour ago, I was going through a spell of depression, but I started taking care of my plants, and that lifted my spirits. We become so consumed by the news of all that's going on around us, but we need to stay focused on taking care of ourselves and living our lives.”
The photo shoot was a warm, emotional reunion. “I had to hold back tears, because when I first came to Philadelphia FIGHT, and I did Project TEACH, my teacher was my cousin,” Andrea says. “And here I am, more than 30 years [after my HIV diagnosis], and I'm on the steps of the art museum, having a photo shoot with the teacher who taught me how to stay alive. We're both here, thriving. HIV couldn't take us out, hep C couldn't take us out. I'm still here, because of what he taught me to do. Everything has come full circle.”