Wilton Manors’ World AIDS Day event honors HIV patients
"It costs me $9,000 a year just to keep me alive."
Lenny McFarland knows the medical and pharmaceuticals industries all too well. Partially because he worked as a pharmacy technician for many years but also because he watche d two loved ones pass away from AIDS within months of each other. He has long fought HIV with daily doses of drugs and treatments.
"I stopped taking AZT because I know it doesn’t really help," he said of a popular HIV medication, as he stood holding a lit candle outside the Shoppes of Wilton plaza at a World AIDS Day rally on December 1.
"I almost died a few times, but I am here. This disease has been part of most of my adult life."
The 52-year-old Pompano Beach resident was in college and completing an internship when his partner of eight years, Jon Melkonian, found out he had AIDS in 1990.
He had a nagging cough that was noticeable even by his grandparents in Tennessee when the couple visited them.
His doctor treated him with antibiotics, but when the cough still wouldn’t go away and got worse Melkonian saw his twin brother James’, doctor. James was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986.
Melkonian went to the doctor’s and got tested. Despite a long-term, monogamous relationship, the results were as he and his partner both suspected; He was HIV positive.
And so was McFarland.
Melkonian initially felt okay and increasingly got worse, even suffering from dementia, where there were some days the police had to escort him home because he forgot where he lived.
"He looked liked he was perfectly healthy, but there were many trips to the hospital," McFarland said. "When he was in there one time and I saw the IV dripping, I lost it. I knew it was the beginning of the end."
In 1992, within two years of first being diagnosed and four months of James’ passing, Melkonian died. He was 32 years old.
McFarland spent the last decade and a half working, volunteering at Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale and otherwise living a normal life, despite being out of work on disability, a few close calls with medical emergencies and bad bouts of numbness in his feet and dementia, caused by medical side effects.
For the past five years he has lived with a friend who also has HIV.
"He lost a loved one years prior and now we take care of each other," he said.
McFarland was just one of hundreds of people who shared his story while somberly marching from Richardson Park in Wilton Manors, Florida, across the street from a Dairy Queen restaurant, to half a mile away at the Shoppes of Wilton strip center.
The Broward House, a nonprofit organization providing services to those living with and at risk for HIV and other health and Walgreens Pharmacy20hosted its "Our Memories Burn Bright" candlelight walk, where a diverse mix of straight and gay couples, kids and pets, workers and college students acknowledged those living with HIV/AIDS and remembering those who passed away.
Wilton Manors mayor, Gary Resnick, spoke at a rally in front of Georgie’s Alibi, where the walk ended, and addressed the need for more education and prevention.
There are an estimated 33 million people living with HIV and some 7,400 more people becoming infected with the virus every day.
"We’re here to love those and thank those living with AIDS and HIV," Resnick said. "It’s a strong job to be such a role model in our community."
"We don’t just remember all who were lost but those who are infected and impacted by HIV/AIDS," echoed Justin Flippen, Wilton Manors’ vice-mayor. "In truth, that affects all of us because we are all impacted."
There were other events throughout South Florida to commemorate World AIDS Day.
The Florida Department of Health, Broward County Health Supervisors in conjunction with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida and the Broward County Chamber of Commerce, hosted a panel breakfast titled, "HIV/AIDS: A Threat to Our Hispanic Community," in Miramar to address the rising number of HIV cases among the area’s Latino community.
The City of Florida hosted its "Afternoon of Hope" event from 3 to 7 p.m. in Huizenga Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The community-wide event started with performances by local bands, Los Doctores, the Key Club Players and the Calvary Band.
There was also a walk of history, commemorating those who died from AIDS, and a human ribbon. There was also free HIV testing with results given within 20 minutes.
"It’s very important to get tested because once you’re tested, there are things you can do and there are treatments," Resnick said to the crowd. "We have to end the stigma of this disease and start treating it like heart disease or any other illness."
McFarland, in addition to volunteering at the hospital, has been fairly active with various organizations that promote HIV/AIDS education, including the South Florida chapter of the Names Project Foundation, a 21-year-old group that uses the AIDS Memorial Quilt to heighten awareness.
Each of its volunteers and those from the general public create a patch dedicated to a loved one. McFarland made one for Melkonian.
"I saw this quilt spread out on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1996 and it was beautiful," he said. "I try to tell everyone they need to be tested and practice safe sex. The younger generation thinks it’s just a chronic disease, but I am living proof that it is so much more."
Jodi Ihme, chairwoman of the South Florida chapter, said each panel on the quilt must be three foot by six foot to represent the dimensions of a human gravesite.
"We’ve had many people in our group who20died from HIV/AIDS and this just honors them every day," she said. "It’s also therapeutic for those left behind."
McFarland knows that pain all too well and even now gets choked up at rallies and community events. In 1992, he went to an AIDS march in New York City right after Melkonian died.
"It was heartbreaking, but I was glad to be there. It was quiet and all you could hear was a pin drop," he said pausing. "Except for the crying."