Barreling down the 200-foot drop on Superman: Ride of Steel, I broke out into laughter that lasted a full minute as we reached speeds of over 72 mph and I flew up off my seat several times on the twists and turns. It was the freest and most exhilarated I had felt in a long, long time. So much fun.
I was riding with Thomas, a former Joseph’s House resident. He enjoyed the coaster as much as I did and we were both beaming and exhilarated when the ride ended. Neither of us had ever experienced anything quite like it, and the small crowds that late summer weekday made it possible for us to ride again with only a few-minutes wait. This time we talked another member of our group into riding with us. She loved it as much as we did and the three of us returned for a third ride later in the day.
The trip to Six Flags had been both incentive and reward for Thomas. He had come to live at Joseph’s House last year because of challenges staying on his HIV meds. While living with us, our nurses worked with him to address his medications-related side effects and over the course of a few months he reestablished his medication regimen and gained some weight. He also demonstrated his wonderful cooking skills, easily preparing large platters of delicious home cooking and baking delicious cakes. With his quiet, but endearing presence he became a beloved member of our community.
We continued to see him frequently after he moved out when he came to pick up his medications, help out in the kitchen, or join in activities and celebrations. But there were periods when he came by less often and in the spring he received worrisome test results. His HIV viral load – the key indicator of the virus’ strength in the body – had gone up dramatically.
Though he picked up his pillbox, the test results were a sign that he was not taking the pills regularly. What was going on? At one point, he had told Ann, one of our nurses, he felt like he was “living to take his meds, not taking his meds to live.” We knew he faced challenges staying on his medications and had put supports in place to help him. He also has an excellent social worker at another local agency and he knew he was always welcome at Joseph’s House, but we wondered what we could do better to encourage and support him. So the four of us, Thomas, his social worker, Ann and I, met to see what we could come up with.
Thomas acknowledged inconsistently taking his medications and we asked what sort of incentive would encourage him to take them consistently. He said what he would really like is a trip to Six Flags to ride the roller coasters. I love a good roller coaster, so that seemed like a good bargain, and I was willing to try whatever creative solution we could find to boost his chances. We agreed – if he took his meds and his viral load returned to undetectable levels by the end of the summer, he and I would go to Six Flags.
Thomas stayed connected and engaged throughout the summer and in August we got word that his viral load had gone down quite dramatically. Not quite undetectable, but almost there. All signs were that he was taking his meds consistently. With summer and the park’s weekday hours coming to an end, he was close enough.
A couple of other residents were interested in joining our adventure and Thomas, quietly generous as always, was eager to share his special day with others. We loaded up under cloudy skies and occasional sprinkles, but ended up with a glorious day. And we had a great time – lots of new experiences, plenty of laughs, great pictures with all the Looney Tunes characters (Tweety and Porky Pig being particular favorites), and much pleasure in one another’s company. The day reminded me just how much we all need simple joy in our lives, and as the day neared its end we all thanked Thomas for sharing his reward with all of us.
A week or so after our Six Flags adventure, I saw Thomas at the house eagerly waiting for Ann to prepare his med box for the week. “I want to take my meds,” he volunteered without my saying a word. I felt joy again at seeing the change in him, the light in his eyes.
This weekend he was at the house as is now usual, cooking, yes, but also going out for a walk with a resident who is struggling in much the same way that Thomas was when he arrived. Now Thomas is well enough to be the caregiver. When I came upon him later in the kitchen, he eagerly pointed out his upcoming doctor’s appointment on the calendar. “Are you expecting good news?” I asked. “Yes, I am,” he said with a smile.
He’s my superhero.