For several weeks this spring John Willig took an hour longer than usual to report to work.
Every morning when he left the neat, two-story Brookland house he shares with his lover of six years, Willig drove to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, where he received his daily dose of interferon.
The drug is being tested as a possible cure for cancer, and Willig's doctors at NIH used it in an attempt to interrupt the growth of six small reddish splotches on his body. The splotches were lesions produced by Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of skin cancer acquired by some victims of a new and disturbing disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
For Willig, 36, a former friar who says he is still very religious, the discovery that he has AIDS led to a harrowing battery of tests and treatments. In some ways, he has been fortunate: he has been able to continue working as a staff assistant for a nonprofit religious agency and he enjoys the support of his friends. Nonetheless, there were moments of doubt.
Willig said that when he learned he had AIDS, "I figured that life as I knew it was over."
The AIDS scare, which has hit San Francisco, New York and other major metropolitan cities in the past few years, has come to Washington, sparking fear in the homosexual community. The first Washington case was diagnosed in July 1980, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Since then, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, 12 cases of AIDS, among them Willig's, have been recorded in the area, but doctors here emphasize that no one knows how many undiagnosed cases exist. No patients here or elsewhere are known to have recovered from AIDS, which over months or years progressively weakens a patient's immunological ability to ward off diseases. Of the 1,450 people who have contracted AIDS in this country, 558 have died.
The disease now seems to be spreading beyond the gay community to other groups likely to have contracted it through contact with the blood or blood products of an AIDS victim. But the majority of patients, 71 percent, are homosexual and bisexual men with highly active sex lives. It has caused some gay men to restrict their number of sexual partners and to choose their partners much more carefully. It has also sparked soul-searching within the gay community as it struggles to deal with the epidemic and its social ramifications.
"I think it would be tragic if AIDS made people feel guilty about their sexuality," said Jeff Levy, president of the Washington chapter of the Gay Activist Alliance. "But AIDS has caused some gay people to review their promiscuity in the same way that herpes has caused people in the straight community to reconsider their approach to casual sex."
In Washington, the first response to AIDS has been dramatic. Most of the city's gay bars have held fund-raising events to set up programs to help AIDS victims, while gay organizations have begun to lobby for additional research to cure the epidemic. But such efforts have not allayed the fears of many.
A bartender in Rascal's, a Dupont Circle gay bar, said AIDS is a topic in nearly every conversation among gays, some of whom talk of limiting the frequency of sex with virtual strangers.
"Even the most diehard people here--the kind that has eight to 10 tricks encounters a week--are putting restraints on it," he said. "Maybe they'll do it more with the same person, or exchange phone numbers, or say 'let's go to a movie' instead. I think it's nice because a lot of gays don't take enough time to get to know each other.' "
However, Willig says he has no regrets about the way he has lived his life. He is exceptional both in the security of his economic and emotional life and in the mildness of his symptoms. At present he suffers only from six skin lesions that may be responding favorably to the interferon treatment. He and his lover say that Willig's affliction has served to deepen their relationship.
To take comfort from Willig's case would be deceptive. A reporter asking physicians to suggest AIDS victims for an interview was rebuffed. "Most of them are in pretty rough emotional shape and couldn't really handle an interview," one physician said. As to the AIDS victims' physical conditions, one doctor said, "You really don't want to know."
Even Willig, a quiet-spoken man of meticulous gestures who is supported by a strong network of friends and his faith, did not arrive at his equanimity easily.
"When I was hospitalized for the first stage of the interferon treatment I used to go through three or four emotional phases in one afternoon," he said recently. "I would want help and then I would demand independence. I would ask for medical attention and then I would refuse to have my blood drawn. When I started the interferon treatment I asked for last rites, I was so sure I would never recover. It was only after I got over the effects of the interferon that I realized there is life after AIDS--if you're very, very lucky."
An AIDS task force for the Washington area was set up last month. It will publish educational material on the disease, monitor its incidence in the area, refer patients through a hot-line service set up at the Adams-Morgan Whitman Walker clinic, and in conjunction with the St. Francis Center, provide counseling on dying to patients and their relatives.
According to Willig and almost anyone else aware of the disease, this is too little, too late. "What about working out ways to screen and diagnose people before they show symptoms?" Willig asked.
His question was painfully personal. Willig's first symptom of AIDS appeared on his left calf about a year ago, a reddish spot that Willig didn't remember seeing before. "It was growing, and getting darker," he said.
In June Willig decided to measure the lesion. It was 1/4 inch wide. In October, scared that the splotch might be a symptom of the new disease he had been reading terrifying accounts of in the gay press, he measured again. The red mark had doubled in size.
A doctor told him that it was a mole, and nothing to worry about. In December, a second doctor recommended that he get a biopsy of the spot and just after the first of the year, his diagnosis was confirmed: he had Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer that used to be associated with older Mediterranean males and that is now statistically associated with AIDS victims.
On Jan. 13, Willig was admitted to NIH for an intensive one-month diagnostic period. His blood was tested "umpteen times," his liver was scanned, his spleen examined, his most intimate history fed into an information bank.
He lay still for three hours while two tubes inserted into slits cut on the tops of his feet pumped radioactive tracers through his lymphatic system.
At the end of the testing period the tentative diagnosis was confirmed: As a victim of AIDS, Willig had lost the ability to fight a series of rare diseases, including Kaposi's sarcoma. Eventually, if he follows the pattern of other AIDS victims, he will be susceptible to a virulent form of pneumonia and several forms of cancer, including leukemia and lymphoma.
Willig grew up in Baltimore County and entered a seminary near Pittsburgh, where he eventually took the friar's three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. "The hardest one for me to keep was obedience," he recalled. He earned a BA in philosophy and came to Washington to study theology.
Willig says he did not experience wrenching indecision when he decided to leave the seminary and renounce his vows. Three years later, on the Memorial Day weekend of 1974, he experienced no trauma or guilt when he recognized himself as a homosexual and had his first relationship. "It was a great relief," he said. "I literally danced through the next year and a half."
Throughout this time he explored his newfound sexual identity with the same conviction he had brought to his religious commitment. Six-and-a-half years ago he met Manuel Illescas, a Philippine-born medical technician, when both were choir members practicing for the Easter Sunday service sponsored by a gay Catholic group called Dignity. They began living together in 1979, in a relationship that they said did not exclude multiple sexual contacts with others.
Willig cites his deep Catholic faith as another element that has helped him live through this year. "I came to terms with death in the seminary," he said. But his religious convictions are not conventional; he does not share traditional Catholic views on sin and sexuality.
"If you're asking me whether I regret any of my past, the answer is no," he said, while his lover nodded in agreement. "I suppose you would say I was very sexually active by straight standards, but I was always with the person I was with."
"For gay people, taking someone to bed right away is like having a drink is for straights," said Illescas. "It's a way of getting to know one another; the relationship generally builds from there."
But the AIDS scare has frightened many homosexual men away from this approach. "I know a lot of gays who are worried that it might take years--ten or fifteen--to find a cure for this," Illescas said. "They say 'what are we going to do? This is our life.' "
The NIH considers its work with Willig research, saving him the tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses that less fortunate victims have had to pay. But if Willig's affliction worsened, his situation could easily change. His only medical insurance is a standard Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy.
"We don't worry about that right now; we've got enough to worry about already," said Illescas. "And anyway what could we do? I don't think there's any amount of insurance we could take out that would cover the costs."
He was seated next to Willig in the couple's comfortable living room.
In the upstairs work room the walls are lined with photographs of Willig and Illescas with Willig's family, sharing happier times. "Manny tends to get a nicer-looking Easter basket than I do from my family," Willig said, smiling.
"If John's had any bad times and doubts, he hasn't let me know about them," Illescas said. "From the beginning I've kept telling him that it was no good for him to check out on this situation, to cop out, because I was not going to abandon him. I've told him that this was part of the deal, part of the commitment we made when we decided to live together. I hope I've convinced him of that.
"We are doing everything we can to get the negativity out of John's situation by not leaving anything to chance," he said. "We're using diet and rest and good living to get him healthy."
The focus was on Willig as patient and victim, yet there is a real possibility that if the disease is sexually transmitted, Illescas may also have contracted it. Neither man dwelt on the topic.
"The incubation is said to be from 10 to 24 months," Illescas said. "What could I do about it anyway? We're still very full of hope. This isn't like the bottom has fallen out of our situation, but more like a little hill we have to climb over."
Willig, whose manner during the interview was restrained, glowed when he looked at Illescas.
Intimations of a different future crept into the evening's conversation at unexpected moments. In the work room, Willig proudly showed off the computer he recently bought "to take my mind off my problems." Much later in the conversation, he added that the idea of a computer had come to him "because it is something I will be able to do at the hospital, if necessary."
Last February when Willig was hospitalized for his interferon treatment he asked the doctors to put him in contact with other AIDS patients.
A few days later, another AIDS patient came to visit Willig in his hospital room. The man, an AIDS victim for more than a year, was a former body-builder described by many as a star of the Washington gay party circuit. According to Willig, he was physically devastated beyond recognition, but was still capable of conversation and evidently anxious for social contact.
Willig, who still looks to be in the prime of health, was unable to deal with the impact of seeing the man. He declined to meet with him again.