One way or another, each of the eight people profiled below is an AIDS survivor -- whether as a health care worker, researcher, activist or person living with the disease. AIDS has irrevocably changed each of their lives.

Michael Callen and Stephen Pieters, who were diagnosed in the early days of the epidemic, have beaten phenomenal odds; their longevity and relative good health are badly needed sources of inspiration amid the escalating death toll. Although many people with AIDS are living longer because of earlier detection and better treatment, most die within two years of diagnosis.

Public health officials are studying long-term survivors, defined as those alive three or more years after an AIDS diagnosis. Relatively little is known about them, other than the fact that most are gay white men who have tried both conventional and unconventional therapies and who combine a ferocious determination to keep on living with a realistic outlook.

That is a trait they share with survivors of a different sort -- the doctors, nurses and activists who continue to bring energy and emotional commitment to their work, long after many of their colleagues have burned out.

As Donald S. Abrams, deputy director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital, noted: "Every week, we write the names of the patients who have died on a blackboard. Sometimes, it becomes overpowering and I ask, 'How long can I do this?' " -- Sandra G. Boodman

Fran Herman has spent the last four years living or working out of the one-room apartment in lower Manhattan that belonged to her son, trying to help other families deal with the pain of losing a child to AIDS.

Herman's own son Bob, a 31-year-old lighting designer, died of AIDS in 1986; his apartment has special meaning to Herman, a psychotherapist and interdenominational minister, who nursed him through his last horrible illnesses there.

The loneliness of that experience, Herman said, made it clear that there was a glaring lack of services for families of AIDS patients and especially mothers, who often end up caring for their dying children.

As a result, she founded AIDS Family Services of New York, a group composed entirely of volunteers, many of whom have lost children to AIDS; it is still the state's only organization devoted exclusively to helping families weather the pain, the guilt and, above all, the stigma that makes AIDS different from all other diseases.

AIDS Family Services gets referrals from hospitals, from social service agencies and from AIDS organizations. About 85 mothers and 200 other relatives, as well as AIDS patients who have family problems, have been through its programs, which include bereavement support groups.

One mother, who had nursed her own son until he died, then cared for her son's lover because his own family had rejected him. When he, too, died, on Mother's Day, "her loss was as great as when her own son died," Herman said. "And that's not unusual."

Having endured the pain of an AIDS death, Herman says, has given her credibility with other mothers. "They tell me, 'I know you've been through it and you've made it. I can hope that I will, too.' " -- Sandy Rovner

MAX ESSEX:

When AIDS was first discovered in 1981, Myron "Max" Essex was ready, even though he didn't know it at the time. His years of work on leukemia in cats shed early light on the cause and behavior of the AIDS virus in humans, and his efforts have made him one of the most prominent AIDS researchers in the world.

A veterinarian turned biologist who was then chief of microbiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Essex believed that some human cancers might be caused by transmissible viruses. He studied a cat cancer, caused by a retrovirus ignored by many scientists. Essex showed that the virus was contagious, that it could spread from cat to cat and that most were killed by infections that might not have been fatal had the virus not crippled their immune systems.

Soon after AIDS surfaced in 1981, Essex demonstrated that AIDS patients produced virus-fighting antibodies similar to those produced in infected cats. And AIDS, too, killed with "opportunistic" infections that attacked weakened bodies.

Essex, who has conducted extensive field studies in Africa, says he is convinced that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) originated in African monkeys, co-existing with them for perhaps thousands of years, so long that HIV no longer harmed them. He has hypothesized that 40 to 50 years ago it spread to some tribes, moving into African cities, then across oceans.

Now president of Harvard's new AIDS Institute, Essex, the scientist, said that the months he spent studying AIDS and traveling in Africa have altered his world view.

"I'm much more aware of social problems -- of the problems of minorities, of gay men, of the homeless, of government inaction when people outside the mainstream are affected," he said. -- Victor Cohn

JAMES CURRAN:

Epidemiologists are medicine's bean counters. They discover from statistics and field studies whether there is progress, stalemate or tragedy. During the decade he has spent tracking AIDS, James Curran, the 45-year-old chief of the AIDS program at the federal Centers for Disease Control, has encountered all three.

"The problem isn't over," Curran said recently. "I'm afraid we're moving into a period of relaxation and a kind of complacency, when AIDS is going to get bigger."

An unflappable, plain-spoken, boyish-looking physician who is also trained in public health, Curran was chief of CDC's venereal disease prevention program when he was summoned to New York City in June 1981 to investigate an outbreak of a mysterious, then unnamed, disease that was killing gay men.

In the intervening years, he has emerged as one of the nation's most influential, behind-the-scenes AIDS policymakers. He is an architect of the federal government's response to AIDS, a "point man" for controversial policies advocating more widespread testing and a familiar witness at congressional hearings and countless medical meetings on AIDS.

The struggle over the proper approach to AIDS, he notes, "is not always friendly. There's give and take, push and shove."

While much has changed since the early days, Curran's overall view of AIDS has not. In 1982, he warned a group of doctors that AIDS "isn't going to go away. It's likely we'll be working on this for much of our careers, if not most of our lives . . . We are in for a long haul." -- Victor Cohn

LARRY KESSLER:

After nearly a decade on the front lines, Larry Kessler is tired.

"I'm tired of the political squabbles and the constant level of inattention" from a government "willing to move AIDS to the back burner," said Kessler, 47, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and a member of the National Commission on AIDS.

A former Roman Catholic seminarian, Kessler was running a gift shop in Boston when, in 1982, he read a profile of an AIDS patient. "He was upwardly mobile, in his mid-thirties, well-educated, gay. I said if he is a symbol of what is coming, then a lot of people are going to be in trouble," said Kessler.

The article galvanized Kessler, who has a long history of political activism as an official of Boston's Paulist Center. One wintry night several months later in 1983, the AIDS Action Committee was born during a meeting attended by Kessler and a few others held at a health center that serves Boston's gay community.

Since then, the committee has expanded dramatically: it currently has 75 employees, 1,700 volunteers and a $5.5 million annual budget.

Presiding over it all is Kessler, the longest-tenured executive director of any of the nation's AIDS organizations. Many of his peers at other groups have died or left because they were physically or emotionally exhausted.

"I thought I would just do it for two to three years and it would be over," Kessler recalled. For the first two years, he did not take a day off. "Then I started to pace myself."

Kessler said that the evolution of his job has enabled him to stay so long. "I think that one of the problems many directors have is letting go," said Kessler, who once knew the name of every AIDS client served by his group. "I had that, too. But I realized that if I was going to stay in AIDS, I would have to keep delegating and negotiating."

Sometimes, he said, his longevity surprises him. "It's been the most challenging and rewarding job that I have ever had," said Kessler, who has no plans to resign. "But it's also been the most frustrating and sad." -- Sally Squires

YOLANDA SERRANO:

She is called the "Avon Lady of AIDS prevention" because she delivers bottles of bleach and condoms to Brooklyn's most dangerous crack houses and shooting galleries. She runs AIDS prevention groups for teenage prostitutes, whom she calls "my girls" and warmly greets homeless addicts by name, offering a sandwich or a blanket and coaxing them to consider seeking drug treatment.

"We want to do anything that is going to curb the AIDS virus," said Yolanda Serrano, 41, executive director of ADAPT, the Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, the community-based organization with which she has worked since 1985. "If it takes giving out bleach or giving out clean needles or whatever, it should be done."

In 1980, Serrano, a divorced mother of two young daughters, worked as a social worker at a Brooklyn methadone clinic. "My patients were pretty healthy when I started there, and then they just started dying," she recalled.

Serrano heard about the strange disease that was beginning to ravage the gay community and thought it might be the same illness that was killing addicts.

In 1982, a friend's husband, who was an intravenous drug user, died of AIDS. The fight suddenly "became kind of a personal thing," said Serrano, who became president of ADAPT in 1985.

For three years, she juggled her full-time job at the methadone clinic, her volunteer work at ADAPT and her children. In 1988 -- a year after the organization got its first grant from the New York City Health Department -- she quit the clinic to become ADAPT's full-time executive director. She now heads an organization, headquartered in a Brooklyn storefront, that has an annual budget of $1.3 million and a staff of 38.

An indefatigable, charismatic woman who appears fearless, Serrano is determined to make a difference, despite the enormity of the problem in New York City, where an estimated 250,000 people are intravenous drug users and as many as half are believed to be infected with HIV.

"About 60,000 {IV drug users} are women of childbearing age who will give birth to babies," many of whom will probably be infected with AIDS, Serrano said. "We have a critical situation." -- Sally Squires

STEPHEN PIETERS:

Stephen Pieters was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, before actor Rock Hudson died of the disease, before there was a blood test for the virus and before AZT or any other AIDS drug was developed. He was 31 and, as he watched the members of his support group die one by one, leaving him alone, he felt like a survivor of the Holocaust.

Gradually, though, the Los Angeles minister says he stopped wondering, "Why me?" and began to concentrate on staying alive.

A graduate of a Presbyterian seminary in Chicago, Pieters, now 37, is a minister with the gay Metropolitan Community Church. He has toured more than 100 cities and four countries.

He has survived a score of infections and two kinds of cancer -- Kaposi's sarcoma and lymphoma -- as well as the highly toxic experimental drug suramin, which was believed to hold great promise in the early days of AIDS.

"I believed I was going to get better," he said, "even though people told me I was in denial, suffering from dementia."

Religion is the cornerstone of his life. "When you discover there are things you can do to help yourself, you create hope," he said. "To me, that's one of the great gifts we receive from our faith, that allows us to face things like AIDS, like death, and still have hope."

In addition to his faith, Pieters has incorporated into his own life many of the imaging concepts employed by some cancer therapists. He has drawn from books written by Carl Simonton and Norman Cousins; he meditates every day, conjuring up images of strong T cells, the type of white blood cells attacked by the human immunodeficiency virus. He maintains a healthy diet, is a bodybuilder who works out regularly and does not take AZT or aerosolized pentamidine, a drug effective in preventing AIDS pneumonia.

"I don't really believe in them," he said. "I figure for my own situation I'm doing fine, and I'd rather wait until my condition begins to deteriorate." -- Sandy Rovner

MICHAEL CALLEN:

Michael Callen is a pioneer. Now 35, the singer-songwriter-activist was diagnosed with an AIDS infection in 1982, before AIDS even had a name. Since then, he has managed to outlive dozens of his friends, has served as a symbol of hope to thousands of AIDS patients and has helped found several major AIDS organizations in New York City, where he lives.

He has even found time to write a book on long-term AIDS survivors, which will be published in September.

Callen, who half-jokingly attributes his longevity to "luck, Classic Coke and the love of a good man," says he plans to write music full time and is seriously contemplating "retiring" from AIDS. "It's time to go," he says. "I'm pooped."

Callen acknowledges that he is fortunate to have lived long enough to see the group he co-founded, Community Research Initiative, an organization of doctors and AIDS patients devoted to testing unproven drugs, embraced by the medical establishment he needled for years. His recommendation that AIDS patients receive routine prophylactic treatment with aerosolized pentamidine was endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration last year.

Living with AIDS for eight years has hardly been easy. A rail-thin man with an ironic sensibility, Callen has endured a relentless barrage of AIDS-related infections including cryptosporidium, which causes chronic diarrhea; Kaposi's sarcoma, a disfiguring skin cancer that affects AIDS patients, shingles, thrush and herpes.

He remains a passionate advocate of the gospel of "self-empowerment," a philosophy common among other long-term survivors. And he continues to regard AIDS with gritty determination and talks about "wrestling this beast to the ground."

From the outset, tenacity has been Callen's hallmark. "We condemn attempts to label us as 'victims,' which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally 'patients,' which implies passivity, helplessness and dependence upon the care of others. We are people with AIDS," he wrote in 1983. Those feelings, he said recently, haven't changed. "I'm trying to cram five lifetimes into the time I have left." -- Sandy Rovner

BARBARA BAIRD:

Barbara Baird, a registered nurse at the National Institutes of Health, vividly remembers the three times she stuck herself with needles that had been used on AIDS patients.

The first time, in 1982, was the worst. Baird nicked her hand with a freshly discarded syringe used on a patient who was also suffering from meningitis and hepatitis.

She managed to maintain her composure as she walked out of his room, her eyes brimming with tears. In the hall, she encountered a doctor and blurted out what had happened. Looking stricken, he said, "Oh, my God," then helped her clean the puncture. Baird was lucky; she did not contract HIV, only a mild, asymptomatic case of hepatitis.

The second and third needlesticks occurred in 1983; both were more minor and worried Baird far less. By the last time, she said half jokingly, "I had become rather jaded."

Baird, 52, has not become jaded about her work. She has been caring for AIDS patients since 1981, the year AIDS was first identified. Although she has known and taken care of scores of people with AIDS since then, Baird has managed to avoid the burnout that has affected many nurses who find the demands of caring for the constant succession of AIDS patients emotionally draining.

Many things have changed since the early days of AIDS, Baird observes. Her three grown sons no longer worry that she'll get AIDS, as they did in the early days of the epidemic. And she rarely finds herself ostracized because of her job, as was once the case.

The health and life expectancy of her patients has improved. In the early 1980s, most went blind from the disease or deaf from treatment. "Back then, the mortality rate was 40 percent for patients who {entered} the emergency room with a case of pneumocystis pneumonia," she said. "Today, we have a 90 percent survival rate {for the first bout of pneumocystis pneumonia}.

She has witnessed an enormous amount of suffering. "Because the disease is so awful, when death comes it is almost a relief," Baird said. Still, each patient has taught her something. "I see a lot of courage," she added. "They teach me a lot about myself and about life."

The people with whom she works are the reason she has stayed so long, although her job has changed. She no longer works on an inpatient ward, but as a study coordinator. "We've just finished a study on a drug that is very effective against cytomegalovirus retinitis," which causes blindness, she said. "We see the progress that we have made. When I think {about} where we came from, it has just been an incredible journey." -- Sally Squires