CASSADAGA, N.Y. (WIVB)- Dr. Neal Rzepkowski is a picture of perfect health. At 64, the Dunkirk native has a busy schedule seeing patients, but makes time to tend to his greenhouse, where he grows papayas.
He even built his Cassadaga home, with his bare hands.
So it might surprise some that he’s HIV positive, and has been for more than 30 years.
“I probably picked it up in 1982-81, or even before, either through not using gloves with my patients who turned out to have AIDS, or by not using condoms with my sexual contacts who also turned out to become my patients and have AIDS,” he said.
Back then, an HIV or AIDS diagnosis meant one thing.
“By the time you got diagnosed, you usually had about six months left to live,” Rzepkowski said.
He was put in the AIDS category back in 2005, when his T-cell count dropped below 11 percent. It’s since grown, and he’s been healthy for years, but once federal health officials label you as an AIDS patient, the label sticks.
Tuesday is World AIDS Day, a reminder of how far things have come since Rzepkowski received his HIV diagnosis, and even since he was put in the AIDS category ten years ago.
Dr. Rzepkowski, who is also an Immunodeficiency Specialist at ECMC, experiences close to no side effects with his current medication.
“You’re on one or two pills a day, and that’s it. And as a matter of fact, next year they’ll probably come up with one shot once a month,” he told News 4.
A far cry from the AZT regimens of the 1980s and 90s, which often made patients very ill.
But the stigma surrounding the disease still exists; Rzepkowski became a national symbol when he faced that stigma head-on.
“I was forced to resign from the emergency room at Brooks Hospital in 1991 because of my HIV status,” he said.
At the time, he was caring for several HIV patients, all of whom are still living.
Instead of being angry, Rzepkowski used it as a chance to spread hope to others; he received dozens of letters of support from around the country.
Today, his HIV diagnosis is a way to connect with his patients.
“I’ll say look, I’m 33 years with HIV, you’ve got a long long life ahead of you. So it gives them hope, and it gives them a role model that, you know, it’s not a death sentence like people used to think.”