In Treatment: Duane Cramer
By Tomika Anderson
One in a series of articles about Black people living with HIV/AIDS who are considering treatment, successfully adhering to their regimen and/or getting to undetectable.
Award-winning San Francisco photographer Duane Cramer has fought a couple of personal battles to get his viral load down to undetectable.
The first one was shame: HIV positive since 1996, Cramer initially only told his older sisters and close friends about his status, even though his dad—a Howard University School of Business dean—had died of AIDS-related complications a decade before, as had a cousin. He disclosed to the world less than a year later, after his then employer, Xerox Corporation, awarded him a one-year social service leave to dedicate himself to the prestigious AIDS Memorial Project’s National School Quilt Program. As he toured the nation with sections of the quilt, he told middle- and high-school students and others about his status as he helped educate them about HIV.
“Back then I had a lot of guilt around HIV and AIDS, and so did my family, so we kept it a secret,” he shares about his journey, 17 years after he became infected via unprotected sex. “I finally came out because I figured the only way we’re going to stop this disease is to talk about it, and the only way I was going to be able to fully interact with my family—my nieces and nephews—was to be open and honest.”
His second battle was a lack of adherence to medication stemming from that shame.
“It was psychological,” says Cramer about his hesitancy to take his meds. “I’m fortunate to say I didn’t have significant side effects [from my initial regimen], but every time I took those pills it was a reminder that I was living with HIV, a virus that had taken the life of my father,” he admits. “The experience brought up a multitude of issues.”
Cramer says that the reality of his health challenges helped him get over the hurdle.
“Even though I had some challenges with adherence initially, what I found was that over time, as I continued to regularly test my viral load and CD4 count, if I skipped a dose or two it was noticeable in my results the next time I went to see the doctor,” he says. “This made me became an advocate for my own personal good, as well as for my partners’. I needed to make sure that I stuck to the plan because whenever I’ve been adherent and on medication, my viral load’s been undetectable and my CD4 count has remained stable or increased, which is right where I want to be.”
Nowadays, Cramer’s primary social mission is to help others get to undetectable. A longtime AIDS activist who focuses on eating right, taking his meds consistently and working out regularly, Cramer just became the face of a new national HIV campaign designed to urge other HIV-positive folks to take optimal care of themselves, too.
“I’m really excited to be teaming up with [Project Runway star] Mondo Guerra to be a part of this national HIV-education campaign called I Design,” he says. “It’s aimed at helping empower people living with HIV to work with their doctors to take a more personal approach to their HIV treatment.
“Of course, one of the goals as someone who is HIV positive is to minimize your viral load and/or keep it undetectable,” he continues. “But it’s also to keep tabs on what kind of side effects and symptoms you may be experiencing. I talk to my doctor about any symptoms I may be having as a result of any of the medications I take, as well as any other health issues or concerns I may be experiencing.
“For instance, high cholesterol is often a problem with certain drugs,” he explains. “What I’ve learned from living with HIV for a long time is that we’re all different and our treatment plans should reflect that, so this campaign is going to encourage people to have really open and meaningful discussions with their doctors about their plans, based on what their specific medical lifestyle needs are.”
To learn more about Duane Cramer, visit duanecramer.com or follow him on Twitter.
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Essence, POZ, Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.