Join the Fight to End AIDS by 2020
Add to the long list of names of mothers who lost a child to AIDS, the name of Denise Smith. This year’s 25th Annual AIDS Walk/Run will be the first for her, having lost her son, Ronny last December.
In spring of 2013, her children started asking Denise Smith, “What’s wrong with Ronny?” Ronny, the oldest of Denise’s six children, worked full time as a nurse’s aide at an Oswego nursing home. His younger siblings told her they had noticed that Ronny was having trouble walking, communicating, and he just seemed ‘off’ mentally. “Something’s just not right with Ronny,” they’d say and asked their mother to intervene.
When Denise asked her son if he was doing okay, Ronny admitted, “I just don’t feel right.” She became concerned as well and took him to a doctor in Oswego who did some testing but offered no real treatment. The doctor advised “just letting this run its course,” and scheduled a follow-up appointment for three weeks. Denise, who was paying a lot closer attention now, was not inclined to just let things run their course.
Ronny had some new symptoms; his legs were now raw and bleeding; he had trouble forming thoughts; sometime his words made no sense. She was very anxious and wanted answers now – not later.
The Oswego doctor’s office referred them to Upstate in Syracuse where Ronny was soon admitted and subjected to a barrage of tests. When it came to being tested for HIV, Ronny balked, but Denise persuaded him to “get every test you can. We have to get this figured out!”
“I think he was afraid,” Denise said later. “I think he suspected that it might be HIV, but he couldn’t bring himself to get tested and face a future he was afraid to imagine.” The test confirmed Ron’s worst fear. He was positive for HIV and the disease had progressed to AIDS.
“When his tests came back with AIDS, I was totally ignorant about the disease.” Denise educated herself and vowed to her son that, “we are going to fight this.” But AIDS had a firm grip on Ronny and wasn’t letting go.
Ronny spent September through December in the hospital and moved directly into the family home upon his release. They spent countless hours working to regain his ability to walk and to talk. He took his medications as prescribed, but “in the end he lost his ability to communicate, but not before he made it clear that he understood he had sacrificed his life out of fear.”
In a close family like the Smith’s, Ronny’s AIDS affected everyone. Most responded with love and encouragement, but sister Cara was very angry with her brother for not having taken care of himself.
“I knew my brother, my best friend, my rock had just been given a death sentence, angry because he was an extremely smart individual, spoke three different languages, was loved by so many, he should have known better,” said Cara. “I will forever keep him not only in my heart but in my life.”
Ronny’s youngest brother, Noah, was in high school where the teachers knew that his brother was hospitalized. “I lied,” he told Denise. “I told them he had cancer.” She reassured her son that the lie was understandable, and maybe the easiest way to explain. “That’s okay, Noah. Being in high school with all the prejudice, discrimination, and judgment, no one is going to understand you having a gay brother who has AIDS – no one.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of Ronny,” Noah said.
“I know that, honey. But you have to protect yourself also.”
Ronny accessed services of ACR Health – especially helpful was the nutrition program, but in the end, AIDS had too much of a head start on him. His mother set up a Facebook page so Ronny, not wanting anyone else to make the same mistake he did, could share his lesson learned: don’t be afraid to get tested for HIV. He had 400 followers. In August 2016 he stopped taking his meds. It had all become too much and too painful. By December 5, he was gone.
Ronny’s death provoked a spark inside Denise to do everything possible to prevent this tragedy from happening to any other family. She knows now that HIV, when detected and treated early, can be contained and that HIV positive people can live long and well. She wishes that Ronny had not let his fear get in his way.