BEST FRIENDS : Volunteer and AIDS Patient Help Each Other Understand

Times Staff Writer

The night Jeff was admitted to the hospital after collapsing in the living room of his Costa Mesa apartment, he was so sick with pneumonia and a variety of other ailments that he had to be carried into the emergency room.

"I thought I was going to die," Jeff said in a soft Southern drawl.

Before the night was over, the 28-year-old, Georgia-born machinist's worst fear was confirmed: He had AIDS.

"I was scared as hell," recalled Jeff, who asked that his real name not be used because the company he works for does not know he has acquired immune deficiency syndrome. "I immediately called my lover. I needed someone just to hold onto and tell me it was going to be OK. . . . I don't see how a lot of people make it if they don't have anyone, or they're rejected."

Despite the support his partner of eight years provided that night in June, 1986, it didn't take long for Jeff's diagnosis to severely strain their relationship.

"A lot of fears were there because, here I've come down with this disease, he might have it also," Jeff said. "And the fear of being alone was part of it. Eight years--that's a long time to invest in a person and love and care for and all of a sudden thinking it's going to be taken away from you.

"And trying to understand how this could happen to me and not to him--that was the No. 1 thing with our problems. Our relationship has been monogamous. But it came down to: 'What have you been doing?' "

While still in the hospital, Jeff talked to a social worker who told him about the "buddy program" offered by the Costa Mesa-based AIDS Services Foundation. Through the program, trained volunteers are assigned to visit AIDS patients. The volunteers--some gay, some straight--do everything from grocery shopping to driving the patient to the doctor. Most of all, they offer a sympathetic ear.

Although Jeff and his partner continued to work on their problems, "I just really needed somebody to talk to, just basically to pour my heart out," Jeff said.

The day after Jeff was released from the hospital, Fred Escarcega of Santa Ana was out riding his bicycle when he stopped by the AIDS Services Foundation office and encountered the then-director of services, Steve Peskind.

Escarcega, a gay 25-year-old college student and waiter, had been a volunteer in the foundation's buddy program for three months. The AIDS patient he had been helping had died a month earlier.

"Steve told me about this new guy," Escarcega recalled. "He asked me if I was ready to get involved again. I said, 'Sure.' "

Escarcega showed up at Jeff's door the next day. Still weak and feverish from his bout with pneumonia, Jeff was not exactly in the best shape for meeting anyone. His weight had dropped drastically, from 128 to 92 pounds, and he had a jaundiced look. As a result of medication, his skin was flaking and his hair was falling out. Worse, he had developed such a bad case of herpes while in the hospital that, he says, "My mouth looked like somebody had dragged me down the freeway."

"If Fred hadn't been interested in being a volunteer," Jeff said, "that should have been enough to scare him away. But it didn't."

Indeed, over the past 18 months--through the emotional highs and lows, through the setbacks and improvements, through the days Jeff feels energetic and the days he feels "like somebody beat me with a stick"--a friendship was born.

Jeff and Escarcega dropped the word "buddy," a term they both felt uncomfortable using, last year.

"We're just best friends," Escarcega said.

"He is," said Jeff, "the best friend I have in California. In a short time, we've grown close and confided in each other our innermost fears. . . ."

Seated at the dining room table in Jeff's apartment one morning recently, Jeff and Escarcega were reminiscing about the day they met. The tall and lanky Escarcega, wearing a navy blue Michigan sweat shirt and gray sweat pants, had come over to drive Jeff to his doctor's appointment at an Anaheim hospital.

On that first day, the soft-spoken Escarcega recalled with a laugh, "I think I spoke 15 words."

"He just sat there and listened," said Jeff, by nature the more talkative of the two. "We started with how I felt, and it went from that to stories of my history and stuff. I come from a sort of lulu family--they're definitely book material. We talked about what was going to happen to me and about how bad I felt I was treated at the hospital."

In particular, he remembers the night he was admitted. After various tests had been conducted, the emergency room doctor returned to his side.

"He came back with so much rubber on, all I could see of him were his eyes," Jeff said. "It scared the hell out of me because when he came in the first time he had none of this (protective clothing) on. It really upset me. I felt like, 'Oh, my God, what's going on here?'--that maybe any second I just may keel over dead, or they might isolate me forever."

After informing Jeff that he had AIDS, the doctor said, "I'm sorry, but you probably have only about six months to live."

"This doctor," Jeff said, "had done almost more damage to me than good."

In the weeks after Jeff was released from the hospital, Escarcega visited him every day.

"Fred basically, to be honest, kept me alive when I first came out of the hospital," Jeff said. "Fred would come over and cook, clean, do laundry . . . watch TV. And if I needed somebody to talk to, he'd be there.

"I was absolutely terrified to be alone because it gave me too much time to think."

Jeff has been on medical leave from his job since he was diagnosed. Although another bout of pneumonia put him back in the hospital in November, Jeff said he was feeling fairly well except for a pain in his arm which his doctor was to examine.

On the drive to the hospital for his checkup, Jeff said he has developed a variety of medical problems since being diagnosed as having AIDS, including temporary loss of vision and several yeast infections that have caused him to lose his toenails and several fingernails. He has even had yeast infections in his stomach and esophagus, which he describes as "very, very painful."

"It's like everything that can go wrong with your body does," he said.

Over the past 1 1/2 years, Jeff has been treated with more than 25 different types of drugs. The side effects of some of the experimental drugs, he said, "are as bad as the disease." One drug caused him to convulse. Another made him itch so much that "it felt like I actually had bugs crawling underneath my skin," and he scratched until his arms bled.

Jeff said that in a week he would be trying yet another drug, an inhalant. But when it comes to taking medication with potentially harsh side effects, he said, "I'm not interested in time, I'm interested in the quality" of his life.

After circling the hospital parking lot and failing to find an empty space, Escarcega dropped Jeff off at the hospital entrance. On his way inside, Jeff noted that most of his friends "have been good about trying to stay in touch."

But, he conceded, "I've lost a lot of friends through this. Some gay friends, they're in fear of catching it. There's one neighbor in the (apartment) complex and her husband that are straight and have a little girl; they've treated me better than a lot of my gay friends because they understand the disease."

Jeff checked in with the receptionist, then sat down in the large waiting room. Jeff said his longtime companion has been tested three times but shows no signs of having the AIDS virus. They both have gone through group and individual counseling at the AIDS Services Foundation which, Jeff said, "I advise for anybody in this situation."

Many of the problems that initially strained their relationship have been resolved, he said. As for the question of how he got AIDS and his partner did not, Jeff said the two of them sat down one day and he talked candidly about his life before they met.

"He really didn't know what went on in my life before him," Jeff said. "I had a hard past, but I had a fun past. I was very promiscuous. The things I wanted then were different than (what) I wanted after I met him. Basically, we came to the conclusion--I think and several doctors think--that I may have had the virus a long time, and that's basically what we decided to let it go as."

It really doesn't matter how he got AIDS, he said. "I do have it. It's not going to change, and we have to go forward from here. . . . It's really hard. Sometimes (Jeff's partner) says, 'I wish it was me and not you.' I say, 'Just be glad you don't have it.' "

Now that Jeff's condition is relatively stable, Escarcega visits him only once or twice a week. Depending on whether Jeff feels up to it, they usually have lunch together, go shopping or take walks on the beach. They also talk on the phone every day.

Jeff has his good days and bad days, but for the most part, he said, "I'm doing real well." He knows other AIDS patients who have gotten sick after he did and who are now dead. "I think a lot of it, too, is your attitude," he said.

Jeff has spent a lot of time thinking about his past, growing up on a farm and moving to the nearest big city when he was 16. But he has no regrets.

"I don't regret anything in my life, even getting AIDS," he said. "I was angry at first. But I wouldn't change anything. I had a real robust life before I settled down."

With that, a nurse called Jeff's name. Escarcega watched as his friend disappeared through a door at the far end of the waiting room.

Is it tough knowing Jeff will die one day?

"People that know I do this (volunteer work)--straight friends or gay friends--ask, 'How can you do it, knowing they're going to die?' I don't look at it that way," Escarcega said. "It's like with any friends, I don't look at it as probably they're going to die some day."

He paused, then said: "I wouldn't give anything to change what I have with him. It has grown into something really beautiful and wonderful. I probably wouldn't have met him if it hadn't been for the foundation."

Escarcega said he joined the volunteer program after a friend he grew up with was diagnosed as having AIDS. "I was always hearing about AIDS, but that kind of really shocked me. It was always hanging in my mind: 'What can I do?' " to help.

He served as a volunteer with his previous AIDS patient, a 42-year-old Costa Mesa businessman, for only a month before the man died. During that time, Escarcega drove him to the doctor every day. When the man was hospitalized, Escarcega would shave him and help him to the bathroom.

"He expressed his thanks to me before he passed away. I felt like I really did something for him," Escarcega said, adding that the man's mother also expressed her gratitude to him in a letter.

Escarcega said he feels partly responsible for Jeff's "getting-back-on-his-feet attitude." But mostly, he said, "it's him."

Jeff also has been there when Escarcega needed him.

"This past August," Escarcega said quietly, "I lost my partner. He passed away suddenly. He was never sick. He had no symptoms until three weeks prior to his death, and he was diagnosed with AIDS only four hours before he passed away. It was a shock. Even for (Jeff). He has really been supportive. He's been there a lot for me."

Escarcega admitted it was tough for him to be around Jeff the first month after his partner died: "It finally hit too close to home, and it taught me to think (Jeff) is going to be leaving sometime, too."

The loss of his partner affected Escarcega deeply. He withdrew from college where he was majoring in social science and has taken time off from work. Three years ago, Escarcega said, he thought AIDS would never touch him. "Now I think about it all the time."

But Jeff won't let Escarcega get too low.

"The roles have been reversed," Escarcega said with a smile. "He's been kicking me in the pants to get me back in the swing of life."

Despite his companion's death, Escarcega said he has not been tested to see if he carries the AIDS virus. "I never practiced anything unsafe with him," he said, "and right now that pacifies my conscious." Testing is "something I eventually know I will do, especially if I ever get involved with anyone again."

But for now, he said, it's too soon after his partner's death. "Emotionally, I'm not ready to go through that if I do test positive."

Escarcega said Jeff "has slowed down quite a bit these past few months. His energy is limited now. He realizes his body is beginning to break down more than it has in the past year."

But Escarcega admires Jeff's unfailing zest for life and his drive to help others.

"I think getting AIDS and going through what he's gone through, he wants to help everyone else," Escarcega said. "He's gone out on his own and gotten to know people with AIDS, people with fears. He spends time with them, trying to make them comfortable."

Escarcega looked across the waiting room and laughed. Jeff had come out of the doctor's office and was talking to the receptionist.

"Did you hear that?" Escarcega said, still grinning. "He said, 'OK, I'm still alive.' "

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