BACK TO LIFE

A new generation of AIDS drugs called protease inhibitors is having dramatic effects--perhaps even pointing to the day when AIDS will be a manageable chronic disease like diabetes. But for a lot of people who had readied themselves to die,

          As William Kinkler reaches out to shake your hand, his right arm pulses and twitches perceptibly. Almost all afternoon, he has been smoking cigarettes and watching the weather come and go while sitting in a wheelchair on the porch of Hope House, an old farmhouse in Stillwater that is politely referred to as an adult extended care facility and more often functions as a hospice. After a day of drizzle, the front yard sparkles in the early evening sun. It's a beautiful sight, Kinkler says, speaking with a pronounced drawl that sounds like a recording of John Wayne set just a hair below normal speed. There is a genuine smile set within the immaculately manicured gray hairs of his Fu Manchu, and a vibrancy in his eyes that does indeed make them gleam. Bill Kinkler was supposed to be dead and cremated about five or six months ago, and he is feeling much better than that.

          In January, Kinkler's right leg became increasingly numb, and he'd sometimes stammer and forget what he was going to say. Near the end of the month, at Ramsey County Hospital, Dr. Keith Henry supplied him with a devastating diagnosis. A viral infection had settled on his brain, an opportunistic condition resulting from his immune deficiency. Without even knowing he was HIV-positive, Kinkler suddenly discovered he had full-blown AIDS. "Dr. Henry said he would try AZT or whatever, but realistically. there was nothing we could do. I came here on the 4th of March, basically to die," Kinkler says.

          By late March, Kinkler had lost all feeling and muscle control on his right side. "Bill was dying, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically," says Laine McGee, a close female friend who has known him for 38 years, since junior high. "The deepest part of his depression began after his friend Larry went back to California after visiting. It was early April because we decorated Bill's room for Easter." Staff workers at Hope House say that during this period, Kinkler lay in bed choking back tears most of the time, and that he was constantly angry and excessively demanding. It so happens that Kinkler had grown up just a block and a half away; his bedroom window at Hope House overlooked the other side of the ravine in the same woods where he played as a boy. Yet Kinkler says he didn't allow himself to indulge childhood memories. The television stayed on from seven in the morning until two or three hours after midnight. At night, half-paralyzed and plagued by night sweats, he would flail around in bed, trying to get comfortable.

          More than anything else, Kinkler dreaded the thought of slowly wasting away. He had seen it happen to his friends in California, knew it was happening to one or two people just down the hall. Henry reassured him that the brain virus would take him rapidly, and that pain medications could minimize the suffering. Says Kinkler, "I was preparing myself to go to sleep one night and not wake up. But I figured if this was going to be it, I didn't want a lot of people around to see it. I withdrew into myself. I kicked my father out of my room so many times. 'The hell with you! Leave me alone,' I'd yell at him." An only child, he named McGee as his power of attorney, and wrote a will that divvied up his few possessions. "He told me to take care of his parents," McGee says. "He didn't plan a funeral service. I don't think he thought anyone would come."

          Three days after Easter, on April 10, Kinkler began taking ritonavir, one of a new class of antiviral drugs known as protease inhibitors. He had asked about the drugs the previous month after reading a newspaper article about their approval by the FDA; Henry replied that it probably couldn't help him, but it also wouldn't hurt to add it to his existing regimen of AZT and 3TC. Almost immediately, Kinkler's health started to improve. Tests in May showed decreasing amounts of the AIDS virus in his blood, and an increase in his t-cell count, an indicator of stronger resistance to the virus. But as Kinkler puts it, "I was still thinking more about death, not convinced anything else was going to happen."

          A cathartic, all-night visit from McGee snapped his attitude. "I climbed into bed with him and held him in my arms and it was the first time I had seen him totally break down," she says. Adds Kinkler, "It was the first time I admitted out loud that I was dying. And it was the first time," he says, his voice cracking at the memory of it, "that I said I really wanted to live. The next morning I woke up and decided I wanted to fight. Not to be a hero or anything, but because I thought I could have a better life than anyone was expecting."

          In June, Kinkler's tests again gave reason for encouragement. But the real breakthrough occurred later that month, when, after six months of numbness, he started regaining feeling in his arm. Then the bottom of his right leg became ticklish. Exhilarated, Kinkler intensified his efforts with his physical therapist, constantly setting goals for himself as he strained to loosen joints and limbs that had locked up and become atrophied from lack of use. By late September, with his weight up to 166 from a low of 138, he was able to shake hands, rotate his shoulder so his hand went behind his head, and even walk with the use of a one-sided walker. The infection on his brain was diminishing. "The last time we talked to Dr. Henry, he looked at Bill and me and said, 'He should have been dead in April.' There was no sugarcoating," says McGee. "He also said that if he was seeing Bill for the first time and did a blood test, he wouldn't even be diagnosed HIV."

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