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'The Quality Has Gone': Archie Harrison's HIV Journey, 1987-1988

A flower lays on the engraved names of AIDS victims at the National AIDS Memorial Grove on December 1, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
A flower lays on the engraved names of AIDS victims at the National AIDS Memorial Grove on December 1, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif.

We are marking a milestone, 50 years of NPR, with a look back at stories from the archive.

I had been covering the frightening development of a disease that was striking mostly young, gay men in New York City and San Francisco in the early 1980s. Later, it would be learned that the cause was HIV. Effective treatments that promised a nearly normal lifespan would be developed. But that wasn't our world — certainly, it wasn't the world in which Archie Harrison found himself, infected with a virus that was killing him.

Harrison was just 31 when he was diagnosed. I first met him in the midst of reporting on the new treatment for HIV, AZT. It was hoped the treatment would reverse the disease process, but that was not to be the case. NPR's science editor, Anne Gudenkauf, suggested we personalize our coverage by profiling an individual coping with AIDS. We decided on Harrison; he was smart, thoughtful and willing to push himself and his thinking.

Our first series of reports focused on Harrison's efforts to get better. He exercised, changed his diet and continued working as an actor. In our very first story, we talked about how he intended to "fight it" and emerge healthy once again. Over the months, Harrison slowly succumbed to the devastation of the disease. His immune system plummeted, and he suffered a number of debilitating and difficult problems. Through what must have been a sad and terrifying journey for him, Harrison maintained his commitment to me, to NPR and to the series. Throughout this period, Archie received dozens of letters from listeners who were touched by his words.

These were the days when All Things Considered would air pieces running from 18 to 24 minutes. In individual cuts, Harrison would be thinking and feeling between speaking. Such was the power of the story; we could feel the silence. The silence struck me most one day, when Harrison, weak and skeletal, sat in a chair with his partner Drew balancing on the chair's arm. In response to one of my questions, Harrison looked up at his partner, his eyes watery, and said, "The quality has gone." Harrison was referring to his life. Not long after that interview, he decided to stop taking nutrition and no longer take medication. Harrison died peacefully, at 33, with Drew by his side.

Our story aired that evening on All Things Considered. It was one of the original "driveway moments" — listeners wrote in to say they had pulled over to the side of the road and cried. They were peeling carrots over the sink while their tears fell. Collectively, we had become very close to Harrison, whether we knew him personally or over the air. It was a lesson about commitment: to finish what you start, no matter the end; to share your feelings, no matter how hard; to make a difference with your life, no matter how short. Archie Harrison did. NPR simply helped. —Patti Neighmond, Correspondent, Health Policy, Retired 2021. Her reflection was adapted from This Is NPR: The First Forty Years.

[In October 1986,] the Food and Drug Administration announced which AIDS patients will be eligible for the experimental drug, AZT. The drug is not a cure, but it is the only drug so far that has extended the lives of people with AIDS.

Archie [Harrison] says he knows AZT isn't a cure. He tells us about his friends, friends with AIDS. There's a good grapevine, so word about AZT travels fast between New York and California.

Archie Harrison: I don't want to sound morbid about this because I don't feel morbid about it. But when you get, when you get a diagnosis of a disease where they don't have a cure and you're told something like, "Oh, your life expectancy will probably be eight months to a year, maybe longer." You can go one of two ways. You can take that as a death sentence and lie down and wait for it to come. And then, I really think that if that's the route you choose, you will fulfill their prophecy and you will be dead in eight months to a year. Or you can start making every moment count.

For Archie, this role is more than stagecraft. It's important to him because he says education about AIDS has become a central part of his life now. He doesn't want people to think AIDS is a strange and ugly disease. It's an illness, he says, that real people suffer and real people help them through.

Like many people who have faced serious or terminal illness, Archie is reexamining most aspects of his life. Not only is he concerned with physical things like food and exercise, but he's also concerned about his state of mind and his emotional health.

When you follow an AIDS patient who was on AZT, you can't help noticing that he has a lot of hope for the future, hope that most AIDS patients don't have. But as days go on, you also see times when infection takes hold of the body and life becomes difficult, even frightening. For Archie, it began about a month ago when he started complaining of a tightness in his chest. He began to worry. So did his lover, Drew, because those were the initial symptoms the first time Archie had pneumocystis a year and a half ago.

But like Archie, Drew still hoped for the best. This past year, the two had been studying natural healing. The idea that positive thinking can help the body fight disease. But positive thinking did not ward off the pneumonia.

Archie Harrison: Last year, I had, I had a tendency to — I sensed the quality of running from death more then. And proving to yourself that you were a well person, the quality of the way you were then was like, "I am going to beat this." And more than accepting it, you know — you accepted it, but there was a quality of like, "I'm still running." You were still, you know, yourself. You were still running around acting like, not a normal person — but I mean — having like, a completely normal schedule, a typical New York stressed out schedule. And it just, you know, and a lot of that has changed out of necessity.

Archie Harrison: I think that we wear our physical experiences on our face a lot. And I think my face looks like I've been through a lot more than it did, say, two years ago, that when I look at pictures of me — my, my acting picture — that there was a lot of stuff that face hadn't been through that this one has been. And I notice it now, when I look at myself and I look at those pictures, I just think, "Boy, you know, that — that's a different face."

Archie Harrison: I just never thought I would get — I would get to a point like this, in this illness, where all this would be [...] like this — where we would have a tube in my stomach. And I'd be feeding myself that way. And then I would be as weak and I am and need so much help.

Just — it's very different. Getting up and feeling the feeding bag and then letting it run in. And then, having to get up and clean the feeding bag. And it just gets tiring, doing that ten times a day. And the other thing is, I just — I feel — I don't know. More than that, I feel like I'm not really living a life anymore. I'm just sort of maintaining one. And there's not a lot to my life other than this feeding tube.

Archie Harrison: My value system — my belief system — that I had set up for me, was that the world was responsible for everything that happened to me; the good and the bad. The world could give me love. The world could take it away. The world can give me diseases. The world can take them away. Doctors can take them away. That person, out there, will give me a cold. Bristol Myers will give me the drugs to take, to get rid of it.

It was all out there — everything, including getting love. It had nothing to do with in here. I just shut that off completely. And everything I was doing was that far out there. And because of out there. And that's probably the single biggest lesson that I'm really starting to take hold of, is that it has nothing to do with out there. That out there is just a reflection of what's going on in here to begin with.

Drew Tillotson: All around our apartment was St. Clare's Hospital. If I walked down Ninth Avenue, I would see the hospital where he had pneumocystis and nearly died. If I walked north and went up Ninth Avenue towards Columbus Circle, I would pass St. Luke's Hospital where he was last ill. So all around where we lived represented the illness; it represented everything that had gone wrong and a lot of heartache.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.