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Youth HIV/AIDS educator Bob Bowers speaking Video
Bob is a long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS and is a public speaker and youth educator.
Bob Bowers speaks on when to disclose your HIV status
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Youth HIV/AIDS educator Bob Bowers sharing his experiences and knowledge as a long-term survivor at North Bend High School in North Bend, Oregon.
Bob Bowers, 50, didn’t think he’d live this long.
He contracted HIV at age 19 when he injected crystal methamphetamine for the first time in a Hollywood hotel. He said the decision was a result of peer pressure and feeling invincible.
“In 1983, it was still a gay man’s disease,” he said.
He didn’t think twice when his girlfriend at the time said they should have sex while high. That one time was all it took for him to contract HIV, he said.
“What 19-year-old wouldn’t feel pressured to try something their girlfriend offered?” he said.
A year later, he went to the doctor with swollen glands and flu-like symptoms. A biopsy of a lymph node in his groin tested positive for “hyperplasia as seen in patients with AIDS.”
Tests for AIDS weren’t readily available until 1985.
That’s when he tested positive for HIV. He was one of the first 14,000 infected with it, he said. About 1 percent of those are still living.
Bowers, a 1981 North Bend High School graduate, has traveled the country since 2000 on “The Black Pearl,” his Harley-Davidson, speaking to groups, mostly young people, about how they can prevent getting HIV.
He visited his alma mater Tuesday and Powers High School on Wednesday. He also plans to attend the homecoming football game at North Bend High School on Friday. It’s the first time he’s been home since graduation. He avoided class reunions.
“This is the grand reunion,” Bowers said. “I’m just letting the flow of the universe take charge.”
Bowers, aka “One Tough Pirate,” said his “faith, hope and spirituality” keep him going.
He’s also on a strong cocktail of drugs. He must take 20 pills, of about 10-15 different medications, three times a day. Among them are chemotherapy-type drugs, in order to keep the HIV symptoms under control. He also must give himself weekly injections of testosterone. The concoction makes him sick with diarrhea, vomiting and other side effects. He also has peripheral neuropathy in his hands and feet. All of it leaves him unable to hold a full-time job.
“It’s the fewest medications I’ve been on,” Bowers said. Although medicine has improved over the years — he used to take about 65 pills — there still isn’t a cure for either HIV or AIDS.
There’s also still a lot of misunderstanding about HIV and AIDS, Bowers said.
When he was first diagnosed, Bowers joined a support group for heterosexuals in the Los Angeles area with only a handful of people. He said many were scared to admit they were infected then and still are now. He said the attitudes toward those with HIV and AIDS remains much the same as it did 30 years ago.
“There’s still that stigma and intolerance,” Bowers said. “People think they can catch it easily.”
It takes receiving significant amounts of infected body fluids to contract HIV, according to aids.gov. The website says it’s contracted during sexual contact, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, injection drug use, occupational exposure, blood transfusion with infected blood or organ transplant.
It’s Bowers’ goal to help educate young people, he said. Students at NBHS said they learned from his talk.
“He was very inspirational,” said Coriane Bohanan, a sophomore. “He was pretty blunt about a lot of things. He helped me understand about it.”
“It was pretty awesome,” said Cassie McCutcheon, a junior. “The fact is that we see this every day and people just don’t do anything about it. They just stay curled up in a ball.”
There’s one thing Bowers wants young people to remember:
“It’s not who you are, it’s what you do that can give you AIDS,” Bowers said.
Insurance and health care
Insurance coverage for those with HIV or AIDS may be easier to obtain now with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Bowers’ private insurance and Medicare help pay for his medicine, he said. He also receives help from the Ryan White Care Act, which helps those with HIV or AIDS who are uninsured or underinsured pay for medicine and care not covered by Medicare or their private insurance.
The Coos County Public Health Department didn’t receive prevention funding for HIV/AIDS in 2010-2011, but continues to offer testing by billing the patient for the nurse’s time.
By the numbers
There were 39 reported cases of HIV and AIDS in 2011 in Coos County, according to the Community Health Assessment Plan for 2013. There was one new case reported in the 2012-2013 year, according to the Coos County Annual Health Plan for that time.
There are 33.4 million people in the world living with HIV or AIDS according to aids.gov. About 1.7 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with HIV since 1981. Of those, 619,000 have died. One in five are unaware they have the disease, according to aids.gov.
Reporter Emily Thornton can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 249 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @EmilyK_Thornton.