How Did Arthur Ashe Contract HIV, Sadly Ashe contracted AIDS from the blood transfusions he had received during one of his two heart bypass operations in 1979. And his physicians discovered that Arthur was suffering from AIDS in 1988…
They were seated around the kitchen table — Arthur Ashe; his wife, Jeanne, and their daughter, Camera, now 6 years old. This was a short time ago and the conversation was unremarkable, about what Jeanne and Arthur had done that day, and what Camera was doing in school. Jeanne looked at Camera and then casually turned back to Arthur, and saw that he had begun to cry.
“Camera didn’t question it, because she knew that her father had been troubled, though I don’t think she was quite sure of the depth of it,” Jeanne Ashe recalled. “Then Arthur reached over and held her hand. And I rubbed his back. It was one of the few times I have ever seen Arthur cry.
“Nothing was said.”
As the gauzy cloudscape outside the airplane window slipped by, Arthur Ashe thumbed through his appointment book. He was flying from New York City to a recent speaking engagement upstate at Niagara County Community College, where posters on the small, rural campus in Sanborn, N.Y., read: “Today at 12:30 in the Fine Arts Auditorium/Arthur Ashe/U.S. Tennis Champion and AIDS Victim/Discussion on AIDS and the Right to Privacy.”
These are new and very trying times for Ashe — in a lifetime that has been full of new and often trying times. But it is also a life that has been, by any account, extraordinary.
At 49 years old, Ashe, as the world knows, found himself last April feeling virtually compelled to reveal that he had contracted AIDS. The disease was apparently transmitted through a blood transfusion that Ashe received after he underwent heart-bypass surgery in 1983.
After overcoming his anger over the belief that his privacy had been invaded, that he had been pushed to go public because a newspaper, USA Today, was pursuing the story that he had the disease, Ashe, as he has done with virtually everything else in his life, has made adjustments.
He has become a leading spokesman for education about AIDS, a man as consumed by helping those who will come after him as he once was determined to live his life on his own terms.
He talks frequently on college campuses and elsewhere, and he does so openly, and patiently, about what he knows and what he has learned, both about himself and the disease.
“I’m amazed at Arthur,” Seth Abraham, the president of Time Warner Sports, and a close friend, had said earlier. “Barriers just don’t exist for him. They don’t impede him, don’t block him, don’t hem him in. He feels that there’s just too much in life that he must do. And time is an element.”
So Ashe has quit asking certain questions.
“When I first learned that I had contracted this supposedly terminal illness, in 1988,” Ashe said, “I used to ask my doctor every few months if I had time enough to plan to take my daughter to Disneyland, or to play in a celebrity golf tournament, or to take part in a seminar on race, or some other matter. But I don’t anymore. I’ve fallen into a kind of routine. I know I’ll be sick with diarrhea and fatigue about once every five or six days. And this has been going on for several years. So I’ve learned not to panic when I feel bad. When the symptoms change, when I’m sick two or three times a week, then I might again have to bring up the subject of longevity with my doctor.”
Arthur Ashe has always been lean, and he is thinner now, down to 147 pounds from 153 when he was playing tennis and confounding observers who wondered how he summoned so much power into a serve that could whistle at 115 miles an hour. That serve helped propel him to become the first black man to win the United States Open, in 1968, and Wimbledon, in 1975, and to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
“I weigh a little less than I used to, but I know I look even thinner because the muscle mass has diminished,” Ashe said. “It happens with most retired athletes. I play golf now, and have given up tennis completely. I love golf. I’ll play golf in an minute. I’d miss a meal to play golf.” His eyes, behind aviator glasses, twinkled. “Sometimes I have.”
He remains surprisingly active for someone who has suffered three heart attacks — the last, a relatively mild one, only six weeks ago — undergone two heart-bypass operations, one a quadruple and the second a double, and is coping with AIDS.
Ashe takes two drugs regularly, AZT and DDI, to try to slow the breakdown of his immune system. He takes a larger quantity of natural vitamins. In all, for his heart and because of AIDS, he consumes about 30 pills a day. His prescription drug bill is $18,000 a year. Then and Now Triumphs Range Beyond Tennis
As the lone black male tennis star in the 1960′s and 1970′s, Ashe carried a burden that sometimes made him uncomfortable, but he carried it with dignity. He was a role model and a source of inspiration to blacks as well as whites. The story is by now well known: how a youth from segregated Richmond rose swiftly through the ranks, sometimes being refused entry in junior tournaments held in the South, to triumph in the nearly all-white tennis world.
Since the de facto end of his tennis career in 1979 — after he suffered a heart attack, while ranked seventh in the world, at age 36 — Ashe had been involved in numerous social causes. Now that his condition is known, his life, his schedule, have become even fuller.
In his window seat in the airplane, Ashe mentioned that he had a dentist’s appointment the following day. Arthur Ashe’s going to the dentist is different from most people going to the dentist.
“The dentist comes out like he’s going to war,” Ashe said with a little smile. “He wears a long green surgical gown, a mask, goggles, latex gloves — well, he’s always worn gloves — and his assistant is dressed the same way. No, it doesn’t bother me. That’s the way they should dress. I mean, he’s going to poke around in there, and he might draw blood and he’d be foolish not to use all the health precautions he can. But he’s been great. And he’s shown courage.
“I don’t mean just physically because he still treats me, and some doctors would not. I mean that because he still treats me, he’s lost business. A number of his patients have left him because of me.”
Ashe looked down at his appointment book, which is brimming: there is a function for the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS; one for the Safe Passage Foundation, which he founded to deal with problems in inner cities, and one for a black athletic organization that he has recently helped organize with the former Knick guard Dick Barnett.
Ashe handed his companion an article on AIDS in which it said that people with the disease feel an odd sense of liberation, that they can pursue activities and say things with candor that might have inhibited them before.
“Absolutely true,” he said.
As an athlete, Ashe had transcended the sport, taking a stand for the end of apartheid and becoming the first black athlete to play in an integrated sporting event in South Africa, in 1973. When a delegation of Americans assembled to visit Nelson Mandela in October 1991, the black leader requested that Ashe be among them.
And just a day before the most recent heart attack, Ashe was arrested, handcuffed and placed in jail for a few hours in Washington while taking part in a demonstration in front of the White House. He was protesting the Administration’s policy on restrictions of Haitian immigrants.
Now, en route to his speech upstate, he was pursuing another cause, the one of helping educate people about AIDS. No Holding Back Both Advice And Empathy
Ashe has known that he has AIDS since 1988. It was then that he underwent brain surgery after his right arm became paralyzed. The surgery revealed a parasistic infection that quickly led to a diagnosis of AIDS. But Ashe had not planned to reveal his illness until, he said, the time came when he would be noticeably changed by the disease physically, and then would have to confront obvious questions.
He said that he thought it was a private matter because he was no longer an active athlete whose performance would be affected by his having AIDS. But when USA Today asked him to confirm or deny a rumor that he had AIDS, he decided it was only a matter of time before the word was out, and he scheduled a news conference the next day to make his own announcement. He wanted, as much as he could, to control the dissemination of the information.
“Rumors and half-truths have been floating about concerning my medical condition,” he said at the news conference April 8. He then made his announcement.
After the plane landed in Buffalo, Ashe was met by a Niagara County Community College student who took him into his confidence.
“Mr. Ashe,” said the student, “my brother has AIDS, and he’s dying. But my parents don’t know it. He’s told me, but he doesn’t want to tell them.”
“How did he contract it?” Ashe asked. “I mean, what was the opportunistic infection that revealed it?”
“He’s gay,” said the student. “I think it was a liver problem he had been in the hospital for.”
“Do your parents know he’s gay.”
“Yes. Yes, they do.”
“I think they can handle that he’s dying,” said Ashe. “He’s probably afraid to tell them because he feels he’d be rejected by them. But I don’t believe he would be. And he’d feel unbelievably good, knowing that he was being supported. People in this situation need as much support as they can get to bear up under it. It would be a big relief for him.”
“He’s afraid that my mother’s health couldn’t take it.”
“Mothers hold up suprisingly well,” Ashe said, evenly. “Their love is almost unqualified. I’m not one to give advice, but I think you should tell your parents about it. Does your brother work?”
“No. He gets a welfare check.”
“I think he should try to get a job,” Ashe said. “Otherwise, he just sits around collecting a check and watching the clock tick away. If he felt useful, he’d feel much better. It’s important to be productive.”
Some 300 students and faculty members — close to capacity — appeared for Ashe’s talk in the college’s auditorium. Much of the talk was about the most basic aspects of living with AIDS.
“I’ve had a religious faith, growing up in the South and black and having the church as a focal point of your life,” Ashe said. “And I was reminded of something Jesus said on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remember, Jesus was poor, humble and of a despised minority. I wasn’t poor in that my father was a policeman, but we certainly weren’t rich. And Jesus asked the question, in effect, of why must the innocent suffer. And I’m not so innocent — I mean, I’m hardly a perfect human being — but you ask about yourself, ‘Why me?’ And I think, ‘Why not me?’ ”
“Why should I be spared what some others have been inflicted with,” he continued. “And I have to think of all the good of my life, of having a great wife and daughter, and family and friends, and winning Wimbledon and the U.S Open and playing for and coaching the Davis Cup team, and getting a free scholarship to U.C.L.A. — all kinds of good things. You could also ask about this, ‘Why me?’ Sometimes there are no explanations for things, especially for the bad.”
Sometimes, he said, paraphrasing a bumper sticker, stuff happens.
Ashe believes he contracted H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, when he underwent heart-bypass surgery in 1983 and was given a blood transfusion. At the time, hospitals were not checking blood samples for H.I.V. That test began nationwide two years later.
“Just yesterday,” Ashe went on, “literally, just yesterday, my daughter, Camera, who is 6 years old, asked me, ‘Daddy, how did you get AIDS?’
“To use a sports analogy, this came out of not deep left field, but deep center field. But I was glad to hear she was asking. The more open the better. I know that she had asked her mother questions about me, and we’ve talked to her about my illness in a way that we hoped would penetrate a 6-year-old’s mind. And so now I told her what had happened, how the blood they gave me in the hospital was someone else’s blood and it was ‘bad.’ She immediately perked up. ‘And the person had AIDS?’ I said yes. She sat a little longer. ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, that’s how I got it.’ And then she mercifully went to sleep.”
It was recalled that earlier, Ashe spoke about his wife and his daughter, and how doctors have said that he posed no danger to them. Each has tested negative for H.I.V.
“But one day,” he said, “my daughter may be a danger to me. I couldn’t go near her if she got a communicable disease.”
In that earlier conversation, recalling the April news conference and her husband’s starting to cry as he made his announcement, Jeanne Ashe had pointed out that “it was only when he came to the part about Camera.”
“I think a lot of things flashed through his mind,” she said. “They’re really close, and he wanted to be able to see her graduate — from elementary school, from high school, from college. And he wanted to be around to be a grandfather, too. I think his mortality really hit him at that moment.”
Back at Niagara Community College, Ashe said he remembered with anger that the Reagan administration had said that the “nation’s blood supply was safe.” “And it wasn’t,” said Ashe. “The medical community was slow to react. If it had been a more mainstream sickness, they would have been quicker.” Questions, Answers The Lesson Of a Man’s Life
In the question-and-answer period, he was asked about the rights of privacy in his case. “Just because it’s newsworthy doesn’t mean it should be printed,” he said. “Sometimes the media goes too far.”
At that moment, the April news conference was recalled. At one point as he made his announcement, the often stoical-appearing Ashe had been forced to stop while reading his message — pausing at the part about his daughter — and put his fingers to his temple to prevent himself from sobbing. His wife had risen from her chair and had begun to read his statement for him. After a few moments, Ashe had continued his reading.
In the community college auditorium six months later, Ashe was asked, “What about your daughter, and the cruelty of other children?”
“That was also a grave concern of ours,” Ashe said. “But there has been no problem at all, not at her school or anywhere else. Camera is never without supervision from adults. And people have been wonderful.”
Does he ever need counseling?
“I remember sitting on my hospital bed when I was told I had AIDS,” he said. “It was the day after I’d had brain surgery, and I’d experienced a paralysis in my hand, and as it turned out it was all related to AIDS. It was hard to believe, of course. But I never needed counseling. I’m able to function normally. I told myself, ‘Just adjust and deal with it.’
“I wasn’t trying to be macho. When you’ve gone through all I’ve gone through, like the heart operations, you learn that if someone can help you, damn it, get help. But emotionally I’ve been able to deal with a lot of things in my life. I viewed this as just one more challenge.
“There have been tons of these things in my life. And here’s another one. I’ve learned to be self-reliant. It was kind of forced on me. The first moment that comes to mind in this regard was when I was 12 years old. And I went with my first tennis instructor, Ron Charity, to enter a U.S.T.A.-sanctioned tournament for 12-and-under at Byrd Park in Richmond. Byrd Park was a white park. It was a nice, warm, sunny spring day. And I remember the head of the tournament — a white man named Sam Wood — he’s long gone now, but he was a nice, kindly gentleman. And he was apologetic, but he said, ‘No.’ There was no integration in Virginia then and he said, ‘I’m sorry, but a law is a law.’ ”
Ashe continued: “I began to learn that I couldn’t rely on others, that I had to take charge of my life. If I wanted to be a tennis player — and I did, passionately — that I’d have to leave there. In my senior year of high school, it was arranged for me to go to St. Louis. I knew that if I couldn’t play indoors in the winter, that the white kids would pass me by. I’m not bitter about any of that now. It’s all in the past. But I learned that I couldn’t let circumstances dictate my life for me. I have a minister — he’s more of a friend — whom I’ll talk over some personal things with. But in effect, I’ve become my own counselor.”
Did he see himself as a victim?
“No,” he said, “I see myself as a patient.”
His lecture had consumed an hour and a half. After he answered the last question, the audience in the darkened theater rose and began to applaud — standing and clapping for long minutes, moved by the candor, warmth and strength of the man under the lights, in front. Arthur Ashe stood listening to the applause echo through the auditorium, then gathered up his notes and left the stage.