Local stories of survival, hardship shared at AIDS talk

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoNancy L. Haigwood, a researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, talks about the state of AIDS related research during a World AIDS Day event hosted by Martha's Pantry at the Clark County Health Department on Friday.

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AIDS survivor Michele Kruchoski spoke at Friday night's AIDS talk about how she went from being a hospice patient to living in her own home. Kruchoski was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and developed full-blown AIDS in 1995.

A former drug abuser, her health suffered and she developed brain lesions. She remembers thinking she wouldn't make it to 30.

"I've gone through some rough things in my life," she said.

Though she lost a lot of memory and feeling in the right side of her body, she still remembers her mother caring for her. Her mother and father, Trudy and Robert Steinbarge, pulled her out of hospice and cared for her in their dining room.

When Kruchoski's doctor asked Trudy what she thought of her daughter's condition, Trudy said: "I think she's too young to die and very healthy."

The doctor agreed and sought out more treatment options, which eventually worked. Kruchoski moved out of her parents' home and lives independently.

"I'm able to celebrate my life now. I never thought I could," she said.

The talk was hosted by Martha's Pantry, a downtown Vancouver food bank catering to those living with HIV and AIDS. Volunteer Vicki Smith said Kruchoski serves as a testament to how far AIDS research and treatment has come.

"It's not the death sentence it once was. Many of us went to funerals ... many in one week," she said as her voice started to crack.

A small memorial tree with the names of those who have died from AIDS serves as a reminder of the disease's ongoing impact. An estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-fifth are unaware.

"Let us not weep tears of loss, but let us have laughter," said the Rev. Ken Kurr before the lighting of the AIDS candle. "Say boldly without fear that we will not allow them to be forgotten."

Keynote speaker and Cascade AIDS Project board member Dr. Nancy Haigwood talked about the state of AIDS and her research into developing HIV neutralizing antibodies and vaccines. Haigwood is a senior scientist, adjunct professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University.

As a young scientist in the 1980s, Haigwood thought it would be easy to cure AIDS, just like it was to develop the hepatitis B vaccine. She thought we would have a vaccine by the time her kids became young adults.

Her children are now 25 and 26. There's no vaccine, but fortunately, Haigwood said, there are people trying to make life better for those living with the disease.

Over the last couple of decades, medical science made progress through drugs and behavioral therapy. Through their work, however, scientists like Haighwood found that HIV is a persistent virus that mutates and develops multiple strains. Even within a single individual, the virus has too much variety for a drug to target.

"It's like trying to grab a train that's moving by," Haigwood said.

While it's possible to make antibodies, Haigwood said a vaccine will likely take another 15 years. The key, she said, is making strong vaccines that block or control infections without making a person sick.

She's optimistic, titling her AIDS presentation "Looking forward through science."

Martha's Pantry plans to hold a similar event each year on Nov. 30, the day before formal observation of World AIDS Day. While many Portland organizations host events Dec. 1, Smith said that Vancouver needed its own event to commemorate and discuss a disease that cannot be forgotten.