"Doctors had spent years telling me I had Epstein-Barr virus or leukemia or chronic fatigue syndrome," recalls Pamela Yelsky, 51, of Redondo Beach, California. "They didn't even think about AIDS until much later." That was ironic, since Yelsky's own stepson had the disease, contracted from tainted blood during surgery. Yelsky cared for that boy, Beau, even as years of shingles and yeast infections wore her down.
"Most women today don't feel they're at risk. All that denial is just shocking." — Pamela Yelsky, 51
In 1992, when diagnosed with AIDS, Yelsky realized she had contracted the virus at 21, through unprotected sex with a man she thought she'd marry. Yelsky got on the merry-go-round of harsh drugs then available, which would eat away at her bones, give her a humped back, and add 30 pounds of fat to her torso. Two years after her diagnosis, she was so sick that she had to stop working at her job as a loan auditor. Stepson Beau endured many of the same difficult treatments, and five years ago, at age 24, he succumbed to lymphoma brought on by HIV, a devastating blow for her and her husband, Jerry.
Three years ago Yelsky began a next-generation treatment called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), a combination of drugs that target different parts of the virus. It does not work for every patient, but many enjoy renewed vigor and few side effects. For Yelsky, "it's a miracle," she says.
But she worries that improved treatments feed a sense of complacency about the disease, particularly among women. "Most women today don't feel they're at risk," says Yelsky, who speaks about HIV at high schools and colleges. "Seeing all that denial 30 years into the disease is just shocking."