Sam Givens: How he savors the gift of life

October 12, 2008 

Sam Givens didn’t expect to be spending his 60s lifting weights, or knitting colorful socks with his little old lady friends.

Frankly, he didn’t think he’d be alive this long.

It has been two decades since Givens got a jolting Valentine’s Day message: He had tested positive for HIV.

The diagnosis was not a complete surprise. Givens had just buried his partner, who had died from complications of AIDS.

Givens, 61, of Columbia received his diagnosis in 1989, seven years after South Carolina had identified its first AIDS case. By 1990, South Carolina had recorded 1,389 cases.

At first, Givens seemed to wear the most common face of AIDS: He was white. He was male. He was gay. The national AIDS crisis focused on those like him — even though in South Carolina, most of the faces of AIDS have been black men and women.

Now, Givens’ is the face of a survivor: More than 14,000 South Carolinians live with HIV/AIDS, which is no longer an immediate death sentence but a chronic illness treatable with medications.

Givens’ diagnosis 19 years ago was only part of his troubles.

Vandals tore down his mailbox — that happened at least eight times — and smashed his car.

A hairdresser, he lost several clients. One woman told him her husband was making her leave.

He moved.

He became sicker and sicker.

Each year, he continued to waste away. His doctor, Albert Burnside of Forest Acres, prescribed AZT, the first HIV-fighting drug.

The medicine came with its own ill effects. Givens became anemic, needing six blood transfusions in as many months.

In 1996, a hospice nurse tended to him as, day to day, he remained slumped over in a chair, too weak to even raise his eyelids. A chaplain came to soothe his spirits. Benelovent strangers dropped by.

Two or three months after beginning hospice care, Givens received new, experimental drugs — protease inhibitors — as part of a clinical trial. He took 18 pills a day.

They nauseated him and gave him diarrhea.

But in a few months, he began feeling well enough to walk his dogs Calvin, Maggie and Coco Jean.

When the hospice nurse came to visit one day, she asked him how he was feeling.

“I feel great,” he exclaimed.

“Wrong answer,” she said —hospice care ceased soon after.

“The drugs have given me my life back,” he says now. “It’s a different life, but it’s one I would like to have.”

He takes four medications a day — six pills — and monitors his blood pressure and cholesterol.

He knows he’s lucky — far more fortunate than the almost 40 people he knew who died of complications from AIDS. In the 1980s and ’90s, there were times when he attended a funeral a month.

Givens battled insurance companies.

His health insurance company raised his premiums repeatedly. In the late ’90s, his life insurance company declared Givens “uninsurable,” even though he had never missed a premium since the 1970s. He hired a lawyer, and the company settled.

Givens and three others also sued the state of South Carolina, which barred those with HIV from an insurance pool designed for those refused by other insurers.

The exclusion was removed before the suit was resolved.

In 1995, he had a stroke and lost his sight.

He became catatonic, and wanted to kill himself. But through a support group, and a healing circle where he Sufi danced and took part in rebirthing exercises, he got better.

The National Federation of the Blind has helped find him training and equipment to ease his life. He uses a voice recorder as a phone book. His current partner has pasted toothpicks to the knobs on the washer and dryer to help Givens find the appropriate cycles.

Over the years, Givens has received his drugs through the state’s AIDS drug-assistance program and the Veterans Administration. A Vietnam-era Army veteran, he pays only $8 per medication — a fraction of its cost.

Givens, now living in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Columbia, delights in the simple pleasures of life: knitting socks, working with Habitat for Humanity, harvesting fruit from the citrus trees he planted in the yard.

He’s in good health but still, sometimes he contemplates death.

He likens his life now to “the tea in the bottom of the cup.”

“It’s the sweetest because it’s the last few sips.”

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