It would be another full year before President Ronald Reagan would use the word AIDS in public, but in August 1986, Arkansas Times reporter Barbara Dodds Stanford told the sad, inspiring, hopeful and heartbreaking story of Chris Beckham, a young Arkansan living with the disease.
A bisexual with an active life, in May 1984 Beckham was working as a licensed practical nurse at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock when he went to his doctor complaining of fatigue. An initial test of his T-cells didn't indicate that he had the AIDS virus. After a fever and paralyzing bouts with joint pain sent him back to his doctor in 1985, however, a better test - one which checked for antibodies to the disease in the blood - came back positive.
The news was not completely bleak. Beckham didn't have AIDS - a death sentence then - just AIDS-Related Complex (ARC), a now-antiquated term for the early stages of HIV. Racked by thoughts of suicide, Beckham instead decided to fight. Using his knowledge of medicine, Beckham began researching possible treatments, finally deciding that a radical and largely untested drug called Suramin, an anti-parasitic drug manufactured by a West German firm, was his best chance for survival. At the time, the best research involving Suramin, was being done at the Claude Bernard Hospital in Paris, France.
What followed was like something out of a novel, with Beckham, growing frailer by the day, venturing halfway around the world on his life savings and loans from family and friends, trying to find a cure. He didn't speak French. His pockets were picked twice in the street. The only hotel he could afford was an unheated cell, twenty miles away from the hospital. Worst, when he arrived at Claude Bernard, doctors told him they wouldn't treat him because he didn't have full-blown AIDS.
He threw himself on the mercy of a English-speaking doctor. "You don't wait to treat a cancer patient until he is in the terminal state," Beckham told her. She agreed to help, eventually winning him a spot in the program, an exception which would eventually become the rule.
The treatment seemed to work. After a few close shaves due to side effects and six months in Paris, doctors finally told Beckham he could go home. With fifteen vials of Suramin in tow, Beckham came back to Arkansas. Once here, Beckham set about fulfilling a promise in prayer he had made the night he decided to go to Paris: to create a foundation to help educate the public about AIDS, and help those with the disease find treatment and support. On January 15, 1986, during a speech to about two hundred health care workers at a state Health Department seminar on AIDS, Beckham announced the creation of The Arkansas AIDS Foundation.
It says something about the silence and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic that no one we contacted knew what became of Chris Beckham. Calls inquiring about his fate to the Beckhams still living in his hometown of Camden were met with a terse "wrong number." Calls to Little Rock AIDS charities turned up empty as well.
Though his name is forgotten, Chris Beckham's dream of helping others lives on. Still headquartered in Little Rock, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation is now the oldest surviving AIDS service organization in the state. Merged with the Ryan White Center in 1999, the AAF provides community outreach programs, nutritional services, counseling, doctor referral and financial assistance for those living with HIV and AIDS in central Arkansas.
Larry Dearmon has been the executive director of the AAF for 10 years. "We have four full-time case workers." Dearmon said, "We help take care of 300-plus HIV-positive clients living in central Arkansas. That's the new reality. We also do a lot of HIV prevention in the community."
Sponsoring fund-raisers like the annual Arkansas AIDS Walk (www.arkansasaidswalk.com), and seeking private donations from individuals and corporations, Dearmon said the non-profit AAF receives primary funding from the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act Title II federal grant.
In addition to fulfilling Chris Beckham's dream of helping change the perception of AIDS and AIDS patients in Arkansas, the AAF is helping those with the disease get the treatment that will help them live longer, better lives.
"We used to lose five, six seven clients a month. They would die," Dearmon said. "Nowadays, with the new medicines and the doctors having gotten smarter about how to treat this disease, we might lose six [or] seven clients a year… We have clients who are living twenty, twenty-five years now with HIV."
For more information or to donate to the Arkansas AIDS Foundation, visit their website at www.araidsfoundation.com
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