August 21, 2007

Communication Important For Those Living With STIs

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Originally published July 7, 2007
When Scot Alpert, an interior designer from Palm Springs, Calif., was diagnosed with HIV, he felt he had no choice but to change his life around. Given only a few months to live, he reexamined his priorities and realized the power he had in shaping his life. Now having lived with the disease for over four years, he finds that communication is integral both in preventing HIV and having a healthy relationship.

When Alpert tested positive for a drug-resistant strain of HIV, he was in a relationship with a staff member at Cornell named Chris. He later found out that he had contracted the disease from a previous partner, who confessed just before dying that he had lied to Alpert about his HIV positive status and asked for forgiveness. Faced with the new challenge of a life-threatening disease, Alpert and Chris attempted to make their relationship work. As Alpert’s HIV got worse, so did their relationship. Alpert feels their inability to speak to each other about HIV and its affect on their relationship in the end caused them to break up.

“Communication is the key in any aspect of life, whether it is a relationship, business, friendship, anywhere down the road.” said Alpert. “And fear is what gets in the way. One thing that I’ve realized about fear is that when we face our fear, there is nothing to fear in the end.”

Sharon Dittman, assistant director of Gannett Health Services, agrees that communication is important in dealing with HIV, AIDS and all sexually transmitted infections.

“There are many different forms of communication,” said Dittman. “Communication can come between partners and what it is they want. Communication between friends and family members matters a great deal in a college community. And communication between a health care provider and patient provides useful information.”

Dittman began working on AIDS issues at Gannett in 1988, just six years after the disease had been recognized. The University decided that it needed focused attention on this virus, which was causing big questions and misunderstandings. Many students approached safe sex with what Dittman calls the Ivy League immunity.

“In the ’90s, many people thought: everyone here is too smart to get this disease,” Dittman said. “The point was to get the word out that it can happen here and you can’t tell if someone has it by looking at them.”

Gannett offers HIV testing, as well as primary care for those who test HIV positive. For specialty cases, Gannett refers people to specialists depending on their needs. Though there are no HIV support groups at Gannett, the health center refers people to AIDSWork of the Southern Tier AIDS Program.

“We want to connect people up with a larger support group [that Southern Tier provides],” Dittman said. “The amount of people willing to be recognized as HIV positive on campus is small.”

Communication remains the biggest factor in preventing STIs, according to Dittman. Recent programs sponsored by Cornell have sought to educate students on disease prevention. Sari Locker ’90, a Maxim sex-columnist, spoke to a packed Statler Auditorium last April in her speech entitled “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex,” where she preached the benefits of, “knowing yourself, knowing others and knowing sex.”

This past May, a program entitled “Study Break: Eat Some Penis or Vagina-Shaped Sweets” at the Robert Purcell Community Center aimed to educate people about safe sex.

More attention has been drawn to AIDS on campus with the announcement in June that Prof. Antje Baeumner, biological engineering, along with a team of international researchers, is working to create a system that monitors the immune system of HIV/AIDS patients. According to a Cornell press release the device “would enable health-care workers to instantly assess when to start life-saving, anti-retroviral therapy.” The application of this research would be especially helpful in third-world countries, according to the press release.

Though AIDS research has come a long way since 1982, Alpert said that it was Chris who gave him the tools to get through the disease by helping him realize that he could do anything he wanted if he put his heart and mind into it.

“When the doctors told me that I’ll be dead in six months, I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t believe it,” Alpert recalled. “I did my own research, took my health into my hands, and found a drug regimen that ended up working. And to the surprise of my doctors, I am now in fantastic physical health.”

Alpert has survived HIV, as well as colon cancer, but he knows that there are many people that have died and will continue to die because of the disease. Now, his goal is to inform others of the importance of safe sex and communication between sexual partners.

In addition to trying to get the word out, he has helped raise money for the local AIDS support groups in Palm Springs.

“This life gives us many opportunities to create change in our lives and the lives of others,” Alpert says. “If we can help just one person from getting this disease, then we have done something really powerful.”