It was 30 years ago, on Valentine's Day 1982 at San Francisco General Hospital, that Richard "Dab" Garner was diagnosed with PCP, a form of pneumonia. Garner then learned he had GRID, as it then was known: gay-related immune deficiency.
He was 19 and told he likely would not see his 20th birthday, which was six weeks away.
"I was traumatized," Garner said of the 1982 diagnosis. "I was one of the first to make it out of quarantine alive, so I felt all alone and really did not know what to do. I had already started giving teddy bears to my first partner and my best friend when they were dying from GRID in 1981."
The bears are Garner's direct, personal tie to the past, present and future. Now 49 and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Garner is the CEO of Dab the AIDS Bear Project, a grassroots project of concerned citizens joined together to raise HIV awareness, education and prevention. Teddy bears are the building block.
"The first year [ 1982 ] was very hard because there were so few people diagnosed who made it out of quarantine alive," Garner said. "There was really no support group out there for people living with GRID. I never knew, from one day to the next, how long I would be alive, so it was hard to think of planning for the future."
But still, he quickly became an activist, urging all to talk about what was happening. He also continued to give away teddy bears to people as they were put into quarantineto let them know someone cared and was thinking about them. "Having been in quarantine myself I knew how scary a place it was," Garner said.
"The upside of the first year was not only did I make it out of quarantine alive, but, I continued to stay alive month after month when I was told there was no hope. It was many years later before I knew why I was able to stay alive when so many others did not.
"At the five-year mark [ in 1987 ] , I remember going to funerals almost every week. There was only one medication to treat HIV and, for most, all it did was make them sick and diminish their quality of life. There was still no federal or state funding to help people with HIV. People who died from AIDS donated their money to help take care of those who were dying."
Garner met his second partner, Brad, in 1984 and he too was HIV-positive. "He taught me the true meaning of love and monogamy," Garner said. In 1985, they became the godfathers of a little girl named Candace who was born with HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome. "It is amazing how the love of a child and being a parent can make you put things into perspective," Garner said.
Candace was, in fact, the one who gave Garner the name Dab, as he is now known.
When she tried to say the word 'dad,' it came out 'dab'and it's stuck.
"The 10-year mark, [ in 1992 ] had its ups and downs," Garner said. "The huge downside was Brad and Candace both lost their battles with AIDS in 1989 which devastated me. Then the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake destroyed my apartment and I lost everything except my car and the clothes I had on at the time."
He also was attending funerals every week for those who lost their battle with HIV/AIDS. He once had nine funerals in one week.
"The upside of the 10-year mark was first of all living that long with the HIV virus and not having to be on any medications. I also was speaking at HIV events around the U.S., including the first AIDS walks and conferences," he said.
Garner credits his survival for the past 30 years to a "fantastic support-group, including family, friends, partners and dogs." Plus, Garner learned years after his 1982 diagnosis that he has a gene anomaly called CCR5 Delta 32 that helps him fight HIV.
"The way I have dealt with HIV/AIDS is [ by ] having a positive attitude, working out, eating healthy and abstaining from drugs and alcohol. I think staying active even after going on disability has been a huge difference and positive impact on my health," he said. "I am also fortunate to have health insurance to help cover my health costs.
"HIV/AIDS has totally impacted every aspect of my life. Being diagnosed at such a young age and becoming an activist, my life has revolved around helping people with HIV/AIDS while doing awareness, education and prevention to help keep those who are still negative to stay that way.
"HIV/AIDS also has impacted my [ professional ] life from the start. When I was first diagnosed, I was modeling and after being outed about my status, the bookings dried up quickly since no one wanted a model with 'the new disease,' so I ended up going back to college and getting my MBA. I never thought this would be my life; I had [ a ] totally different plan for my future. But because of my work as an activist, I have gotten to meet people I probably never would have otherwise [ met, ] such as celebrities, politicians and so many people sharing their story about either living with HIV or someone they knew that either died or was living with HIV.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought I would still be here to celebrate my 30th year of living with HIV. I count every day as a blessing since I consider myself being on borrowed time for so many years."
Dab the AIDS Bear Project evolved from Dab the AIDS Bear, which was started in 2003 because of the start of ADAP AIDS drug waiting lists, Garner said. "I lost two partners, my god-daughter and over 10,000 friends before life-saving medications became available," Garner said. "I was outraged that American men and women were dying [ while ] on the ADAP waiting lists. It will never sit right with me that our country allows any American to be on waiting lists for life-saving medications."
Hence, Dab the AIDS Bear Project is a staunch advocate for increased federal Ryan White Funding, including ADAP, and also a resource for those already infected with HIV. Plus, the project is involved with awareness, education and prevention at events around the world.
Dab the AIDS Bear Project has been supported by such celebrities as Cher, Christopher Meloni, Boy George, Lynda Carter, Jai Rodriguez, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Bill Nelson, and U.S. Reps. Illeana Ross-Lithen, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, and others.
"The public can become involved with Dab the AIDS Bear by donating and sponsoring a child at one of our Teddy Bear Touchdowns. They can donate and get one of our Dab the AIDS Bears or awareness pins," Garner said. Plus, "we have a group called Ambassadors of Hope who attend HIV/AIDS walks, rides, conferences, LGBT pride [ events ] , health fairs and other events with their Dab the AIDS Bearto spread the bear's 31-year message of hope."
Garner said that he distributed more than 10,000 before 1995.
Since 1998, the bears have been available for a donation to help fund its Teddy Bear Touchdowns and other workand about 28,000 bears have been sent out after receiving a donation, mostly domestic, though about 20 percent come from about 14 countries around the world.
"My favorite bear story is each year when we do our Teddy Bear Touchdowns [ and ] each child receives a teddy bear and at least one other gift which the guardians/parents take home for the child to receive on Christmas, or another holiday they observe," Garner said. "The smiles of the kids when they get their bears is the best gift I could ever receive because they know someone cares about them.
"Dab the AIDS Bear Project means hope to me personally. Hope for people living with HIV. Hope for more funding to provide life-saving medications and other services for people living with HIV. Joy and hope for children living with HIV through our Teddy Bear Touchdowns and scholarships to camps for kids with HIV.
"By sharing my personal story, I believe people have hope they can live with HIV for a long time."
Garner said he is "doing pretty well" health-wish, and he is now partnered to Todd Bennett.
"My infectious disease doctor always wishes I would slow down, not do as many events and take it easy. But as long as my health allows, Dab the AIDS Bear and I will be out there spreading hope while doing awareness, education and prevention," Garner said. "Dab the AIDS Bear Project is a community-based organization made up of volunteers. No one receives a pay check or compensation, so it has to be something people are passionate about doing. We receive no government funding because I refuse to be another organization eating up the sparse resources when we have men and women on waiting lists for life-saving HIV medications and other services. So, it is by the generous donations of people around the world that we are able to continue our work and bring hope and joy to children living with HIV and AIDS."
See www.dabtheaidsbearproject.com/ .
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.