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For HIV Survivor, a Passion for Prevention

By Claire Panosian Dunavan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When Sherri Lewis arrived in Los Angeles in 1981, she had the kind of dreams Southern California is famous for. The 25-year-old had a hit record and was scheduled to appear on "American Bandstand," "Solid Gold" and "The Merv Griffin Show." After a first-class flight from New York -- heady stuff for the Jersey girl with the gap-toothed grin -- she was whisked to a hotel suite on the Sunset Strip. As her limo swung into traffic, she remembers, its radio started playing her first Top 40 hit, "Just So Lonely."

"This is where I belong," she thought to herself. "My dreams are coming true."

Four years later, back in New York, Lewis's dreams were in tatters. First, her record producer died and his company folded; then she lost her manager. Plus, cocaine was taking its ugly toll. The once lissome lead of the band Sherri Beachfront and Get Wet was down to 92 pounds and living in a dark, empty apartment with no phone or electricity.

Drugs and money weren't her only problems. By 1985, Lewis was also infected with HIV, although she didn't know it.

Looking back, she believes she got the virus from a bisexual boyfriend. Like many couples in the early days of AIDS, they never used protection.

When a newly sober Lewis discovered her HIV status through a routine blood test two years later, she got another jolt. "I'm so sorry, dear, but there's nothing we can do," her doctor told her. As far as he or anyone else knew, the diagnosis was a death sentence.

Lewis wasn't so sure.

"I had such a fire about being alive," she remembers. Even when a famous specialist told her that her health was an illusion, she countered: "I jogged five miles today -- that's reality."

Soon after, Lewis met a Harvard University researcher who persuaded her to take a job in Boston counseling other HIV-positive addicts. It was an ice-cold reality check. Nearly every week she worked with people in the final throes of AIDS.

Lewis didn't duck the pain. She scheduled appointments, met with patients, ran support groups, all the while gaining new purpose as her life began to revolve around others. "Esteemable acts create self-esteem," she says today.

Eventually, she even relinquished her most cherished dream: having a child of her own. In the early 1990s, before multi-drug treatments allowed many HIV-infected women to bear children safely, the 1-in-3 chance of passing the virus to a newborn just didn't make sense. Instead, two fluffy white dogs, one of whom she named Baby, joined her household. Over the next 17 years, she saw them from puppyhood to old age and beyond.

Today, Lewis lives in a Los Angeles apartment with Romeo, a Maltese-poodle-Shih Tzu she gave a home to in part, she says, because she is healthy. On three pills a day, the longtime HIV survivor still has no detectable virus in her blood and her CD4 lymphocyte count (the ultimate gauge of immune function in an HIV-infected individual) remains normal. But she never forgets that HIV will be her lifelong companion. Or that, every year, 2 million adolescents and young adults worldwide acquire the virus.

Preventing even a few of those infections is now her dream. In the past few years, Lewis has run support groups for women on the street, briefed teachers about HIV/AIDS and taught peer-to-peer HIV education to high school and college students from all walks of life. "Training them uses everything I have: acting, directing, counseling and intuitive skills," Lewis says, referring to her passion to perfect her presentations in order to break the chain of HIV transmission in the next generation.

Finally, 25 years after her darkest days in showbiz, Lewis's life as an entertainer has been reborn. She is in her second year as host and interviewer for "Straight Girl in a Queer World," the weekly podcast on here!, the popular gay TV network. From time to time, the former pop star also takes her mike to a Hollywood red carpet for an interview or belts out a solo at a glamorous event such as October's Divas Simply Singing with Sheryl Lee Ralph to raise funds in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

All of which might make another person a little wistful about a high-flying life and dreams pre-HIV -- but not Sherri Lewis.

"The gift of a terminal illness," she says, "is that you embrace each day. You don't call in sick, and you don't look back."

Claire Panosian Dunavan is a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA . Comments: health@washpost.com.

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