Benjamin Gerritz rode his bicycle from Seattle to Portland this weekend. But his journey throughout the past three and half years has been much longer and far more challenging.
Gerittz, 34, of Portland learned he had HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — on Sept. 10, 2008.
He won’t go so far to say it was a good thing, but Gerritz admits the disease forced him to make positive changes in his life.
“It was the brick wall I needed to run into to save my life,” he said. “It was my one-step 12-step program.”
His heavy drinking and poor decision-making stopped. He would go on to quit his retail job and begin work at Cascade AIDS Project as a prevention coordinator to help individuals understand the disease.
And as a way to help build that understanding, he led a group of 14 other cyclists with the Cascade AIDS Project, a third of whom are HIV-positive, in the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic during the weekend.
“The main reason we decided to go on this ride is to raise awareness, remember all those we lost through the epidemic and to recognize all the people, like myself, on the team with HIV,” Gerittz said. “I don’t expect everyone to go on a 205-mile bike ride. But I expect people to do the easy challenge of going in and getting tested.”
About 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Washington reported more than 12,820 AIDS cases to the agency, which is the 19th most the nation. Oregon ranks 26th, reporting about 6,550 AIDS cases.
Gerritz said due to advances in medicine, it doesn’t get much attention anymore.
“It’s not in the headlines like it used to be,” he said. “But the more we can be out there talking about it to other people about where we’re at, that’s how we’ll bring an end to the epidemic.”
Medications have come a long way to improve the outlook for those with HIV, but Gerritz said there’s still plenty of challenges. The medicine often comes with side effects that cause nausea or can make you feel like you’re in a “drunken state.” And though the stigma surround HIV and AIDS has declined, there’s still misunderstandings about the disease.
Gerritz said he works with individuals who face being excluded from camping trips, concerns about them holding someone else’s baby, to finding a relationship and maintaining a closeness with their family. Gerritz has maintained a relationship with his partner, who doesn’t carry HIV, and received support from his family when he was diagnosed.
“It makes me appreciate what I have,” he said. “With some individuals that we work with, we are their family.”
But it all comes back to conversations, helping prevent others from contracting HIV and educating those with the virus to reduce its spread.
“I hope that by us rising to the challenge that we can one day eliminate the disease,” Gerritz said. “Some never thought we’d be in the place we are now, but that’s all because each of us rose to the challenge. ... You may have HIV, but you can still go out and fulfill your dreams, big or small.”