AIDS was a death sentence. The goodbyes were painful and plentiful. One young man, who died in 1988 at age 28, collected his favorite recipes into a neatly packaged cookbook and handed them out at a final party he threw for himself.

Possessions were given away. Lives were dismembered as a generation of young gay men and intravenous drug users - the first to be infected with HIV - realized they need not plan for anything much. Death was around the corner.

The gay community closed ranks to love and protect their own. Many families had turned their backs on their sick children, afraid of catching the virus, or just filled with embarrassment or anger that they had a hideaway disease that couldn't be hidden. HIV was out in the open, visible in the purple and red splotches of Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare cancer that can emerge when the immune system is weakened. HIV also made itself visible in the slow-moving and sickly young men pushed around in wheelchairs by their lovers and friends, visible in the coffins.

And it was this world that Sean Strub entered as a newly minted Columbia University graduate in 1981. Even though Strub wasn't formally diagnosed until 1985, he already had symptoms. Strub, who is gay, suspects he was infected in college. He had weight loss, night sweats and swollen glands by the early 1980s. "Whatever it was, I had it," he recalls.

He is not alone. Juliann Bace, 38, was infected by her very first boyfriend when she was 18. She had lots of unexplained symptoms throughout her 20s, but doctors wanted to write them off with an anti-anxiety pill. Finally, in 1994, her honeymoon was ruined by severe pneumonia. Doctors ordered a lung biopsy that revealed a rare infection, one disabling the AIDS community.

"I was shocked," said Bace, who lives in Malverne. "I used to see the subway ads listing the symptoms, saying that gay men should seek treatment. I remember thinking, 'Thank God I'm not gay.'"

She had had only three long-term relationships since high school. Her husband called the former boyfriends and recommended that they be tested. The testing revealed that her first boyfriend was infected. He had had no idea and had been married four years.

Within months in 1994, Bace began to lose her balance. Then she became paralyzed from the waist down. During this time, she weighed 85 pounds and used a wheelchair.

That same year, Strub started a magazine called POZ. It was for people who tested positive for HIV, but the three letters would also symbolize the positive attitude patients must have to survive and thrive.

While the media was chronicling an endless parade of funerals, Strub's world was also filled with people surviving, falling in love, getting hired, getting fired, raising kids.

The first year of POZ, Strub noticed purple lesions all over his body. Doctors would find them inside his organs as well. Kaposi's sarcoma is an opportunistic infection. When the immune system is weak and vulnerable, this cancer rolls in.

The CD4 T-cell count of Strub's immune system was 1, which in a man without HIV would range between 400 to 1,200 cells per milliliter of blood; his viral load (the number of HIV particles per milliliter of blood) was 3.3 million. That year, he suffered many bouts of pneumonia; his lungs filled with fluid. He cashed in some of his life insurance policies and sold a house he shared with his partner. POZ readers learned the intimate details of his sickness through a monthly column where doctors delivered bedside advice. He wasn't sure he'd celebrate another year.

Then, everything changed. It was 1996. Doctors finally had something that was working: a mix of three drugs they were calling an AIDS cocktail. Strub was also undergoing chemotherapy for the Kaposi's sarcoma. Within weeks, he was feeling better. The lesions disappeared.

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