Mark Randall celebrates life while still fighting HIV/AIDS

Dealing with the life-and-death struggle, a long-time survivor of HIV and AIDS is proud to persevere for other gay men in Calgary.

Mark Randall is currently living happily with his partner, Blaine, after being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS 26 years ago. Randall is a program co-ordinator with the HIV Community Link and one of the leaders of HEAT, the HIV Education and Awareness Today program; a role that gives him the chance to tell his

story in the hopes that others in the HIV community will never feel alone, but rather, motivated and strong enough to persevere.

“If I can help someone get through those anxieties and fears of what it’s like to live with HIV and AIDS, I really feel good about that because when I was first struggling with my diagnosis there weren’t nearly as many services as there are today,” says Randall.

Randall’s present life is best described by first discussing his past. Growing up in a military family, he says many of the skills he learned from his father helped him deal with aspects of what was to come.

“I’m used to packing up, picking up, and starting all over again. That military childhood allowed me just a few skills to get me through hiccups other people would have trouble with,” he says.

Randall prepares to go home after a day of helping others get through crisis. Most of the time, all people need is to have someone to talk to.

Photo by Caroline Fyvie Even with all the stress a military family experiences, his parents never cornered him or judged him for being gay, something, Randall adds, that really helped him live comfortably on his own terms.

“I knew I was different from other boys. Other people noticed it, including my parents. It was never brought up as an issue,” says Randall.

Life changed when he came out of the closet in the late 1980s, when he left for Calgary and an exciting start to a career.

The year 1988 started with promise. Randall had recently graduated from SAIT Polytechnic with the hopes of working in commercial baking. He was 24 and looked forward to starting a business in the trade.

Much of his life was put on hold, after results came back in November of 1988, showing he had tested positive for an HIV infection.

“The result did come back positive, no matter how well I prepared myself for a positive result,” says Randall.

Once the doctor gave him the news, Randall laments, “From that statement on, I don’t recall any of the conversation that I had with him. To this day, I don’t remember the drive home from the doctor’s office.”

One thing he didn’t forget was when the doctor gave him the terrible news: Randall had three to five years to live, at most.

Eventually, since HIV attacks the immune system, AIDS would follow with the power to kill, and that’s what scared him most.

As anyone could expect, the first years of his infection, or what he thought would be the last years of his life, were not easy whatsoever. Acquaintances and roommates tried to comfort him, but that simply wasn’t enough.

“In the first year, there were definite thoughts of suicide”, says Randall. He had taken two trips to Golden, B.C., with the plan of not returning.

“There is this really nice corner that you could easily lose control of the car and go off the side of the edge. At least they wouldn’t know I died of AIDS,” says Randall. The only thing that stopped him was the voice of his mother in his mind asking him “Why?”

Eventually, Randall decided to simply live out the rest of his years as best as he could. After nice dinners with friends and getting the most out of his career, Randall got closer to his death sentence. With no valid medication available at the time, he had no choice but to accept the end of life for what it was.

Produced by Nicholas Aviles and Caroline Fyvie

By 1994, he weighed 98 pounds and was unable to get out of bed. With crushed dreams of owning a house and having a family, he was sure the end was near. That’s when, by chance, he received access to medication that brought him back to normal weight and health within two months.

“I was lucky enough to get onto a clinical trial and try the new drugs that had become available. I went from weighing 98 pounds and unable to get off my chesterfield to walking my dog, shoveling my sidewalk, and weighing 176 pounds. It was profound,” says Randall.

Once he managed to start the re-boot of his life, he began volunteering with AIDS Calgary, which is now HIV Community Link. For a few months, he volunteered as a baker, but it took quite a while before he was comfortable enough to disclose his diagnosis with peers in the workplace.

Susan Cress, executive director at HIV Community Link, has seen much of the strength in the program grow due to Randall’s involvement in the community. She thinks his presence really helps others understand the complexities and the stigmas associated with HIV.

“I would hope that they get to live in a world without stigma or judgement, that they’ll find someone that loves them, and that they’ll see the end of HIV/AIDS in their lifetime”
— Randall

“Whether he is chatting one-on-one or he is doing a presentation, he brings all of that experience to the conversation. We’re exceptionally fortunate to have Mark. The HEAT program is extremely important too,” says Cress.

Because Randall’s HEAT program is the only designated program tailoured for gay men living with HIV/AIDS in the city, Cress believes more programs like this are needed to address not only helping men living with HIV, but also for fighting against homophobic discrimination and assisting others discover their true sexual identity in a positive light.

Currently, HIV Community Link is partnered with Calgary Sexual Health to improve assistance offered to gay men in the community.

“We’re starting to see a lot of other Canadian-based organizations understand the need of that community, so that’s excellent. Once we have other service providers, health care providers, and educators that really understand the needs of gay men, gay youth, trans adults, and trans youth, we will really be able to move the health marker for gay men,” says Cress.

There is still a lot of work ahead for the community, as a 2012 report by Alberta Health showed there were 241 known cases of HIV in Alberta. Specifically to Calgary, 36 per cent of those cases belonged to the city, making it the second highest area for risk of HIV infection in the province, second only to Edmonton.

The report, showing results from a study of HIV in Alberta from 2000 to 2012, also outlines that the majority of risk for infection is for men who have sex with other men, or MSM. In 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the report shows MSM cases of HIV had a 44 per cent chance of exposure to the infection, the number being higher than any other group in the study.

Randall works hard to keep in touch with others in the community who need someone to talk to and he feels fulfilled by his work.

Photo by Caroline FyvieStill, HIV Community Link has high hopes for gay men, as well as others in the HIV community, in the struggle to regain a better life, free of fear and adversity.

“I would like to see more hassle-free opportunities for people to get HIV testing. When we increase accessibility to testing, as well as provide sexual health education and HIV prevention, we can really leave a mark on decreasing the infection,” says Cress.

Looking forward, Randall is devoting most of his time to living life to the fullest, but also making sure others in the struggle can do the same. His greatest wish is that other gay men in the community can have a future filled with happiness.

“I would hope that they get to live in a world without stigma or judgment, that they’ll find someone that loves them, and that they’ll see the end of HIV/AIDS in their lifetime,” says Randall.

With luck, and lots of love, Randall hopes that humanity can see an end to this HIV hardship, and that the world can come to terms with what remains.

naviles@cjournal.ca