Covenant Hospice will host a free program to the community tonight at 7 p.m. in honor of World AIDS Day. Located at the The Courtyard at 25 W. Avery St. The program will feature a cocktail hour and special guest speaker and Pensacola native Dab Garner.
Garner was 18 going on 19 when he was diagnosed with HIV. It was Valentine’s Day.
“At the time it was referred to as GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” Garner said. “I was quarantined – wasn’t allowed any visitors. I thought, ‘I’m going to die and I haven’t even lived yet.’”
Garner was too familiar with HIV/AIDS, having lost many loved ones to the diseases. He started the Dab the AIDS Bear to give his loved ones something to hold on to in the lonely hospital rooms. Garner also began the Teddy Bear Touchdown, a holiday program for children with HIV/AIDS. Today, the bear stands for more than just a fuzzy friend, but it has become the mascot for Garner’s crusade to provide awareness and proper care to those affected by HIV/AIDS.
But Garner wasn’t an activist by choice. At the time he was diagnosed, he was modeling and trying to break into the entertainment industry. Garner became a bit of a celebrity being the first person to be released from the quarantined ward in a San Francisco hospital and since this was before HIPPA his story was told by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Garner said of becoming an HIV/AIDS activist. “But I would’ve done it anyway. It comes from my upbringing. I was raised to make the best of any situation. The real part of life is how many people you’ve helped.”
Garner’s upbringing was in Pensacola with his Catholic, military, conservative family. Needless to say he was in the closet until he came home to tell his family about his diagnosis.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “Almost everyone in my family has been very supportive. My father and my mother—before she passed away—told me they were proud of what I was doing.”
Garner makes it a point to bring flowers to his mother’s grave every time he comes back home. She was buried with her Dab the AIDS Bear at her request.
Garner hasn’t taken his role as activist lightly. One of the biggest challenges for HIV/AIDS patients is the cost of medications. Garner’s meds add up to $3900 a month – that’s for four medications. Garner has gone to Washington D.C. and met with Senators and Representatives to fight for the 8,000 people in 13 states waiting to receive help from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). He also worked with Edward Kennedy to get more nationwide funding for the Ryan White Foundation, which helps fill the gaps that insurance does not cover for HIV treatments. Garner said many senators, red and blue, have been helpful. Garner said he hated to admit it, but Senator Mark Rubio has been a great help.
“This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a human issue,” Garner said. “The fact that we’re allowing American men and women to put on ADAP waiting lists dishonors the deaths of all those who lost their battle with AIDS before now.”
Garner also wants to for people to be informed about HIV/AIDS. It is no longer a “gay disease.” Garner said 70 percent of new infections are heterosexuals. And of course he wants you to use protection and get tested, not just for HIV or AIDS, but all possible STDs.
“Even if someone is diagnosed with HIV they should be tested for other STDs,” Garner said. “They can make living with HIV harder.”
When Garner was first diagnosed, doctors told him he wasn’t going to make it, but he is almost 50 and still breathing. He has survived two heart attacks and a stroke. He has also suffered Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system common ins HIV/AIDS patients, which is currently in remission.
“Some people dread getting older,” Garner said. “I’m just glad to be reaching 50.”
He looks healthy and fit. Because of his medications, Garner has a hard time keeping weight on. He spends hours at the gym so that he can at least gain muscle.
And he’s not afraid of relationships. His partner, Todd Bennett is HIV positive. The two are adamant about monogamy.
“When you cheat on someone you have not only violated their trust, but you risk bringing home something that could kill your partner,” Garner said. “Thirty percent of women and gay men that are diagnosed thought they were in a monogamist relationship.”
Bennett and Garner have only been dating for three months—“the newlywed phase” Garner called it.
“I am so impressed with the work he does,” Bennett said. “He is the most giving, thoughtful man I have ever met.”
To donate to the Dab the AIDS Bear project go to dabtheaidsbearproject.com
WORLD AIDS DAY
WHEN: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1
WHERE: The Courtyard 25 W. Avery St.
DETAILS:Keelea LeJeune at Covenant Hospice 393-6861