One man’s story of risk and resiliency

Veteran AIDS activist Matt Sharp, 63, is a leader in efforts to help long-term survivors, particularly through The Reunion Project, a national alliance and network. Associate Editor Enid Vázquez asked Sharp about facing the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of a long-term survivor of HIV.

It’s been intense for me. I’m probably not different than a lot of people.  I’ve had pneumonia so many times I lost count. So, I certainly am at risk for developing coronavirus disease. I had pneumonia just from getting seasonal flu a couple of years ago, and was in the hospital for two weeks. It was very serious. 

So when I heard about the coronavirus being a respiratory illness, I became really fearful that I was going to get it. Because there was an outbreak here in the Bay Area early on. I knew immediately that I had to do some substantial things to change my life, really following the shelter-in-place rules that San Francisco and the Bay Area put into place early on—thankfully. 

It’s hard sheltering-in-place at this point of my life, and especially living alone. I was already isolated, and now I am forced to isolate. But we’re coming up on four months, since March, and here in Berkeley where I live, I get out to walk my dog [his beloved rescue, Betty] and I’m starting to go to the grocery store.

Still, I’m being extremely careful. The double pneumonia I had two years ago happened because the seasonal flu turned out to be a very lethal one, causing people to get pneumonias, and I was one of them. 

But I was fortunate to have a great doctor and system of care. You look at what’s going on across the country with the racial inequities in health care, and we’re seeing that people who don’t have access to health care are getting sick and dying more than those who do. 

I was incredibly fortunate to have the care to get through that double pneumonia. Yet even if I got it this time I don’t know if that would save me. Once you get on a ventilator it’s hard to get off of it, and sometimes when you’re my age, when you have very little immune system left, and you have this propensity to get upper respiratory illness, there may not be much you can do to save yourself. 

It’s been like a perfect storm of this viral disease hitting everyone globally, including long-term survivors who have already been impacted for years with sickness, growing older with HIV, isolation, and mental health issues related to survival. All of these together have placed an enormous burden on those of us who have survived. 

We were also just beginning to mobilize as a nation and as local communities to address long-term survival. We couldn’t continue doing what we were doing to bring support programs to people who were in need.

The Reunion Project is bringing on a new diverse group of leaders and organizers to bring people together in creative ways to help move on and move past this—to really address our issues as long-term survivors, our issues of aging and HIV, plus our issues of mental health problems, coronavirus, and social and racial justice. In a way, there’s a silver lining there somewhere if you look deeply.

We know there is evidence that coronavirus is not impacting people with HIV like we first thought it would. That’s a tremendous relief. However, what’s the impact on our mental status going to be in the future—our mental health and our social health? We don’t know that yet. 

But there are a lot of people who have a lot worse health issues than I do, so I try not to complain about being ill. We get enough of that already. 

What I try to do is to get people to be collective in their thoughts around what we can do as a culture, as a community, as a network of long-term survivors to live healthy rather than focus on the deficits. To focus on the things that are positive. I’m involved in great things like The Reunion Project that I hope will build upon the strength of what we have. 

We have to keep on being persistent. We’ve always said that as a community of people living with HIV we’re resilient and we take care of ourselves. That's one thing we have to remember no matter what hits us.