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Last year, Bender decided to try to do what he really loves to do, which is acting. "In October I decided if I loved to do it I would do it. I certainly didn't look sick, or even look my age," he says. And if he seems like a medical conundrum, well, Bender has an explanation for that. "The statistics aren't real statistics," he says. "They represent the past, not the future, and in any case the statistics are based on who's been monitored. We have no idea of who's positive, or how long they've been positive. And when you're faced with death, that's initially horrifying -- but once you come to terms with it, you have nothing to lose. Every day is a gift."
Ashes to ashes, light to light. Like life, the Clinic Study is coming full circle. Having started as a hep B vaccine test before HIV was even known, the study is now working on putting together a new cohort of men for a new vaccine trial -- one that, when it starts, will likely signal the beginning of the end of the plague.
"We're trying to assess the willingness of sexually active men who have sex with men to see if they're willing to participate in HIV vaccine trials," O'Malley says. At this point, that's all off in the future, but the Clinic Study is getting prepared.
In the meantime, the research continues. So much is not known, even this: whether people living healthily with HIV will eventually be taken by AIDS -- three, four, or five decades out -- or whether they will truly be able to control the virus for the rest of their lives. We all die of something; nobody lives forever; enough time under the bridge and in a way it doesn't matter. On an indi-vidual level, that is. But in the way that we are, as Kirby Maples says, all in this together, it matters very much indeed, this idea of HIV as a virus that can be controlled.
"There's still a lot we need to learn from these people: like why? What is it? Is it the immune response? Is it the virus? Or both? Different things in different people?" NIAID's Schrager asks. "The real core of this, you know, goes to theoretical research on preventative vaccines."
In addition, the research needs to be expanded. Most of the people living healthily with HIV who have been studied in San Francisco and around the nation so far have been gay men, and it's not known how what's been learned from their lives relates to HIV-positive people of other skin colors and genders.
"The applicability of these results may be limited because the study population is primarily white, well-educated, and well-off economically. Women, injection drug users, and members of other ethnic groups will perhaps show different results," Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Alvaro Munoza wrote in a 1994 paper in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and Human Retrovirology.
But if the hard scientific facts are still yet to be discovered, 15 years into this terrible time it isn't still necessary to consider things universally dark.
"Here I am, this little living example that flies in the face of everything," says Rob Anderson, sitting in front of the pellucid yellows and sands of his canvas, beneath his windows and the bright blue sky. "But then, I've always been kind of contrary."
"Maybe once a day, I say, 'Yes, I am HIV-positive,' but I don't live my life around being HIV-positive," says Rob Anderson.
According to the Clinic Study's data, some 5 to 8 percent of people who test positive will remain immunologically intact for nearly two decades after infection.
The reason behind nonprogression -- that is, the reason people can live healthily with HIV -- probably doesn't rest in one single place for every person, scientists suggest.
Regardless of the findings of strict medical science, the connection between the body and the spirit is important for one simple reason: quality of life with