Sufferers manage survival with HIV and AIDS

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 1, 2003

Editor’s note: Today is World AIDS Day. This is the last of three stories in conjunction with the day, designed to create awareness and educate the public about the disease.

By Benjamin Dipman, Tribune staff writer

Surviving is instinctual. Humans eat, breathe and exercise because they subconsciously know they have to. Sometimes it becomes a chore, such as finding time for lunch during a busy day.

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For HIV/AIDS sufferers, survival is often all they can think of. Survival is gleaned from family members who have not turned their backs on them. It is gained while educating another about the illnesses. It is extracted from activities that deter loneliness, such as building puzzles or writing.

Doug Houge, who has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and Mike Seltun, who has Human Immunodeficiency Virus, are survivors. The week before World AIDS Day, they talked about their illnesses, their lives and their survival techniques.

Causal living

Doug, who is gay, watched his friend die of AIDS before Doug discovered that he was HIV-positive. Afterward, he said that he went to the doctor and &uot;when he told me I had HIV, I knew.&uot;

One of the first things Doug did was &uot;dive into work,&uot; but he parted with the job because the company would not pay his insurance costs, which were about $2,000 to $3,000 per month.

He tried to continue to work elsewhere, even part time, but Doug lost certain control of his body. His health was unpredictable and could decline quickly and without warning. It was difficult to hold a job.

And his situation continued to degrade. People who have conflicts with their immune systems are prone to other sicknesses. Ted Myers, an Albert Lea physician, said HIV and AIDS cause immune cells, or T-cells, to decrease. When this happens, the body’s immunity to illnesses is not as strong. &uot;You can become infected with organisms that ordinarily don’t cause disease&uot; in other people, because healthy bodies can fight them off.

These are called &uot;opportunistic infections,&uot; Myers said, because they have the opportunity to develop when they normally would not.

Doug had an opportunistic infection called Reiter’s Syndrome, which he said was very painful in his case.

Doug moved around the United States a few times. He lived in the Twin Cities, Washington, D.C. and Albert Lea, where he had grown up. During a three-year period, when he was feeling depressed and overusing his prescription medication, Doug was homeless. He slept on the couches of different friends.

Karen Houge, Doug’s mom, does not think she saw him at his worst, because he was away from Albert Lea. She knew that Doug did not have a permanent place to live, but she could not house him. &uot;There’s only so much you can take,&uot; she said. &uot;If you live under our roof, there are certain things we are not going to tolerate.&uot;

Doug knew this and did not ask to stay.

After his homelessness and visits to the hospital, Doug told himself, &uot;I have to get out of this situation.&uot; Then things began improving. He got an apartment in Minneapolis through Section 8 housing, a program for people with a low income. His physical health improved and he started talking to a psychologist. &uot;I worked through a lot of issues,&uot; he said. &uot;I hadn’t accepted myself as a gay person.&uot;

Once his mental and physical health improved, Doug began thinking about the effects of AIDS in America. Because of improving treatment, he said, there exists &uot;a whole new class of people with long-term AIDS.&uot; A new community was emerging.

Doug’s role as an activist began. He volunteered for an organization called Women With a Point, which provided clean needles to drug users who might be using contaminated ones, a significant cause of HIV, which usually leads to AIDS.

Doug’s life has not been free of flaws since his activist efforts began. He had to be treated for Hepatitus C. &uot;The treatment was so bad,&uot; he said, cringing from the memories. And about 45 of his friends had died. &uot;I lost nine friends in six months.&uot;

But he’s starting his own activist organization called What’s Up and is trying to spread information about AIDS. He says that there is little discussion of the illness. &uot;People are still dying of this disease,&uot; he said. &uot;I think someday we’ll defeat it.&uot;

Family life

Mike Seltun’s story is different from Doug’s, as most survivors’ stories are unique. Mike wanted to help others by donating blood, but did not expect a call from the Red Cross soon after donating. When officials told him that his blood tested HIV-positive, he couldn’t believe it.

&uot;I still don’t believe it today,&uot; he said, three years later.

Mike thinks he contracted it from contact with a girlfriend and was carrying the virus for a while without knowing it.

He had donated his blood at Riverland Community College, the school he was going to attend so that he could find &uot;a different line of work.&uot; Upon the discovery of the virus, he did not go to the college and stopped working completely. &uot;I’m disabled,&uot; he said.

Mike describes his T-cell level as &uot;very good right now,&uot; which means that he is not excessively worried about getting other illnesses. That does not mean he is worry-free. &uot;You just got to be really careful,&uot; he said of trying to stave off sickness. Fatigue overtakes him at times, caused by his medication.

&uot;Some days are good, some are not,&uot; Mike said.

Mike found it difficult at first to talk about the virus. He began attending an AIDS support group in Albert Lea. There were not any people in the group who were HIV-positive or had AIDS; it was mostly composed of people who had friends or relatives who died or suffered from HIV or AIDS. But he said &uot;the group made it easier.&uot; He was angry, he told the group members, and wanted to know why he had the virus.

After talking within the group, he spoke, with risk, to family members and friends. He lost some of their friendships. &uot;They don’t want to understand or don’t want to deal with it,&uot; he said. &uot;Some don’t want to see me anymore. My mom &045; I don’t think she understands it.&uot;

But Mike has a wife, two children and four stepchildren now. They help him stay optimistic. &uot;My wife is real supportive. My kids are, too,&uot; he said.

And as his words show, he is open about his suffering. He wants to talk about the illnesses. &uot;I wonder how many people out there have (HIV or AIDS) and don’t know it,&uot; he said.

(Contact Benjamin Dipman at or call 379-3439.)