My partner at the time was having problems with his eyes. I had been speaking to him for some time about getting tested together. I said to him, “It’s time, now. I’m not suggesting any more – it’s time.” When he tested positive, I said, “Forget the test. Just do my CD4 count.” But they did the whole thing. At that stage, both of us had a CD4 count of under 200, a viral load of over 150,000. So we were pretty “statistically ill.” I didn’t feel particularly ill, but, you know, the numbers were not good.
I can’t say that I was particularly anxious, until the doctor said to me, “Look – with these numbers, seriously, if we can’t get you medication, you’re realistically looking at between three and six months to live. If we can get you on treatment” – and bear in mind that at that stage, there was no treatment in South Africa – “we might be able to push that to five or six years.”
That was the year that we had the AIDS conference here, where we still had the denial between the relationship between HIV and AIDS. And it was only after that that the Treatment Action Campaign took the government to court to force the prevention of vertical transmission. And after that that we got other treatment through.
The early days were absolutely impossible in this country, because if I had had to buy medication for myself, when they became available, it would have cost me two months’ salary as a priest to buy my medication for one month. And that would have been for me and not for Paul. Under those circumstances, how can you buy for yourself and not for your partner?!? You can’t. You simply can’t. So, in those early days, the only way you got treatment here, realistically, was if you were on trial medication. And that’s what we eventually got. After 28 days I had to stop, because the side effects were so severe that I developed lactic acidosis. I was dying, not from HIV – from the drugs.
After actually having been given the last rites by two people – the Bishop of Johannesburg and my Archdeacon, who is now the Archbishop of Capetown – um, I died, in ICU, because I aspirated – I drowned in my own vomit. They managed to pump my lungs, get me going again. And the specialist physician who was looking after me sat playing with medications to try and kick start my kidneys, and when eventually he got that through he knew I’d be OK, because then my body was able to start flushing the toxins. At that stage, I was the third person in the world to have been able to survive lactic acidosis of those levels. The other two had had full liver transplants. So, mine was the first time that it was done just medically.
When I first gained consciousness after the whole episode – which was four days later – the first person I can remember speaking to was my specialist physician. He sat next to me and he said to me, “J.P., I cannot medically explain to you how you’re alive. All I can say to you is to is that God has placed a call on your life.” And I felt that myself. I was a priest at the time already. But I felt a specific calling to work in the field of HIV.
I was not then put on protocol medication; my body was taken into consideration, and what I could and couldn’t tolerate. I very soon achieved total viral suppression. That really changed my life. But that was only possible because I was able to have the care and guidance of a specialist physician who was able to work with my body rather than with government protocols.