Hope, concern balance for man with HIV

Twenty years ago Kevin McCollum-Blair learned he had the virus that causes AIDS.

At first, he was nagged by self-pity. “It was ‘Why me? Why me?’ ” the 43-year-old Everett man said.

As time passed, his fatalistic question was turned on its head. “It became, ‘Wow, why me?’ ” said McCollum-Blair, who now marvels at being a longtime survivor of an incurable condition.

People close to him have even asked if he’s sure that he has HIV. He’s sure. Just last week, he had blood drawn. He’s keenly aware of his blood counts but not consumed by them, nor by his HIV-positive status.

“Days go by that I don’t even think about it,” McCollum-Blair said Friday over tea at an Everett cafe.

Thinking back on 1987, he recalled when HIV and AIDS were considered a death sentence. He was 22 and in the Army when he learned he was infected. He had served in Frankfurt, Germany. “They didn’t know what to do with us,” McCollum-Blair said.

Along with several others he knew who were HIV-positive, he was discharged from the military and received veterans benefits. Those friends died long ago.

At first terrified, he isolated himself, even from nieces and nephews. He became a slave to a vitamin regimen he hoped would prolong his life, however miserable it had become.

“I hated my life,” said McCollum-Blair, a native of Missoula, Mont. “It was my dad who jumped me for feeling sorry for myself.”

Several years earlier, 13-year-old Ryan White gained national attention with his AIDS diagnosis. The Indiana teen became less a poster child than an embodiment of courage, tolerance and resilience before dying in 1990. “My dad told me that if that little kid could go through all that smiling, I could, too,” McCollum-Blair said.

Today, he is living life fully, with a loving partner, a job and an interest in his community.

As World AIDS Day was recognized last week, McCollum-Blair had the satisfaction of knowing he played a part in Snohomish County having an AIDS memorial, the state’s first. The monument was dedicated Dec. 1, 2005, outside the Mission Building on the county campus in downtown Everett.

Seven years ago, McCollum-Blair was one of several people who promoted the idea for the memorial. Starting with talk around a kitchen table, the group, which included Nick Tipton and Debby Stewart-Nielson, planned auctions and music benefits to raise money. Made by Bainbridge Island artists George Little and David Lewis, the monument was originally planned for a local cemetery. When plans changed, the county government was receptive to placing it at the courthouse complex.

“So much credit goes to the Snohomish County Gay Men’s Task Force,” said McCollum-Blair. The monument project was on hold for years until that group became involved. He believes it acknowledges that the face of AIDS mirrors the community. “Everybody has a picture of what they think an AIDS patient looks like,” he said. “There are mothers and dads. Whole families are affected.”

This year brought a personal milestone. On July 23, Kevin and Johnny McCollum-Blair became the first couple from Snohomish County to register in Olympia under the state’s new domestic partnership law.

Together 11 years, they first celebrated their union in 2000, in a ceremony “like any other wedding, but no dress,” he said. The state law adds real security, whether it’s the right to visit each other in a hospital or inherit property.

He’s thankful to be as healthy as he is, but has no rational explanation for it. Early on, he was prescribed AZT, the first drug approved for treatment of the virus. With medications more advanced today and causing fewer side effects, he may again undergo drug therapy. For now, his health doesn’t hold him back.

“I believe in karma. I need to give back,” McCollum-Blair said.

While it’s a blessing, he said the fact that people can live many years with HIV can deceive young people. He fears that many ignore the danger.

“I want to project that I’m a normal person living a normal life,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t want to add to this complacency problem.”

He was troubled to read in Friday’s Herald that 30 new HIV cases were reported in the first nine months of 2007 in Snohomish County, up from 15 during the same period last year.

“It’s a concern with this generation of kids,” McCollum-Blair said. “They don’t remember going to funerals every weekend.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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