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Book tells of struggle to survive HIV/AIDS

The names of more than 1,000 people are carved onto the AIDS Memorial at the White Street Pier. Steve Torrence, chaplain of the Key West Police Department, knew or comforted about 800 of them before they died. ``At the height of the pandemic, we'd sometimes have as many as four deaths in one week,'' recalled Torrence, who is gay.

The diagnosis of being HIV-positive is no longer the death sentence it was in the 1980s and early '90s. But the Human Immunodeficiency Virus is still devastating. And it still kills.

That's the message Cyna Wright, HIV/AIDS program coordinator for the Monroe County Health Department, is hoping to convey in a book launched Tuesday night, on the eve of World AIDS Day.

Stronger: HIV Prevention in America's Southernmost City tells the stories of 16 Key West community members who are on the front lines. Some are battling the disease themselves. Some are trying to educate others about prevention. Some are doing both.

``Complacency is a big problem here,'' said Christopher Tittel, public information officer of the Monroe County Health Department. ``Some people think it's just another disease you can control with meds, like diabetes. They think: What's the big deal?''

Tittel knows it is a big deal. On May 31, 2002, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive during a routine test.

The number of people living with HIV in the United States is higher than ever before, about 1.1 million adults and adolescents as of 2006, the most recent year statistics are available, according to the 2010 HIV Overview by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the Florida Keys, there are now 680 persons known to be living with HIV/AIDS.

That's just the people who know they have it and are being treated. Experts say that about 20 percent of the people who have it don't know they do.

The book's launch took place in front of seven Key West panels of the Memorial AIDS Quilt. The book's title, Stronger, comes from a quote by a legendary Key West resident, Ernest Hemingway: ``The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.''

In 1985, Kenné Tucker had 22 friends ages 19 to 25 die of the disease, which was then known as GRID, for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.

Ten years later, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. He was given three years to live. At one point, the six-foot tall man dropped to 112 pounds.

``I looked like a concentration camp victim,'' he said. ``It was very scary.

But Tucker, now a photographer, hung on. He moved to Key West, where he got great care.

``Never let anyone tell you how long you have to live, because there is no expiration date stamped on your foot,'' he said.

The disease can affect anyone, which is reflected in the book, Tittel said.

``There are men and women, blacks and whites and Hispanics, gays and straight,'' he said. ``Some people contracted it through unsafe sex. One person got it through a blood transfusion.''

Professions include a lawyer, photographer, drag queen and the owner of a lawn maintenance company.

There are about 30 to 50 new cases in the Keys each year. The number has been steady over the past decade.

The Monroe County Health Department is trying to reduce the numbers, offering free condoms.

Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who also serves as an HIV/AIDS counselor at the health department, is known as the ``Condom Man.'' He oversees the room filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of condoms of all sizes and for both men and women.

``Think of a condom like you think of a seat belt,'' Tucker said. ``It can be uncomfortable and restraining, but it only takes one accident and you'll wish you had been wearing it.''

The Monroe County Health Department also offers free HIV testing at 14 sites. On Wednesday, for World AIDS Day, testing will be available at the Bourbon Street Pub, on the corner of Petronia and Duval Streets in Key West, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The disease is much more treatable if caught early. Still, there is no cure or vaccine for the virus. And it still takes lives.

One is Matthew Keenan, a beloved drag queen in Key West known as Scabby.

In the book, he's got a big smile while posing under a wooden monkey. His story is titled ``Nine Lives.''

Keenan never got to see the launch of the book. He died Sept. 11.