World AIDS Day honored at UF

It's a day to promote awareness of AIDS and its impact around the globe.


Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 5:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 11:55 p.m.

University of Florida graduate Rick Ankrum was just 23 years old when he died in 1992 of complications from AIDS.

A magnolia tree was planted near Lake Alice and a plaque placed there to honor his memory. Some of his ashes are buried at the site, along with the Birkenstock sandals that were the trademark of the well-traveled Latin American studies major. He earned his degree months before his death.

Two UF staff members who created the university's first AIDS support group in the late 1980s returned to the memorial site Wednesday for World AIDS Day. Leaving flowers at the tree and two others planted for students who died of AIDS, they reflected on memories of the students and differences in HIV/AIDS treatment at that time.

"It was back when students were diagnosed one day and thought they had to write their obituaries the next day," said Linda Lewis, a UF mental health counselor. "It was such a different time."

Just one of the eight students in the original support group is still alive. Advances in drug treatment mean those diagnosed with HIV today have the chance for longer lives. But that might contribute to a false sense of security among students — as shown by the fact that just 31 percent of sexually active students have had themselves tested for HIV.

"A lot of students perceive themselves as having low risk … but even low risk is not the same as no risk," said Samantha Evans, sexual health educator with UF's GatorWell health services.

The testing figure comes from a spring 2009 survey. Evans said there are no figures of current students with HIV/AIDS, but that there was not one positive HIV test among the 350 she has conducted in the past year.

She said she has heard anecdotally from the UF health center and Alachua County Health Department that there are current students living with the disease. Health department statistics show that one-quarter of the more than 1,650 county residents reported to have HIV or AIDS are 29 years old or younger.

GatorWell provided HIV testing for as many as 120 students Wednesday at the Florida Gymnasium for World AIDS Day, an awareness event held on Dec. 1 of every year since 1988. The UF chapter of the nonprofit group ONE gave out red ribbons that symbolize HIV/AIDS awareness and conducted other activities during the day at the Plaza of the Americas.

The group also helped organize events Wednesday night that included a forum and candlelight vigil at the Reitz Union. UF senior Kelly Dees, vice president of the ONE chapter, said the goal is educating students about the threat of HIV/AIDS to their health as well as the devastation it causes in Africa.

"We're trying to keep it local, but also about how HIV/AIDS is affecting Third World countries, and it is a death sentence there," Dees said.

UF students with the disease before antiretroviral drugs were developed also faced the prospect it rapidly would lead to their deaths, said Wayne Griffin, associate director of the university's counseling center. Griffin and Lewis formed the support group, which they said included male students of different backgrounds and sexual orientations who closely helped each other.

Ankrum was a hemophiliac who contracted HIV through a blood-clotting agent. Lewis said he lacked support from his family, which was fearful of the disease, and she eventually served as his personal caregiver. She and Wallace recalled how he tried any treatment, from acupuncture to massive vitamin doses, in a bid to extend his life.

"Rick, like some of the others, made a conscious decision to live," Griffin said. "He suffered a lot but decided to live as long as he could."

Lewis said UF President John Lombardi taught Ankrum in Latin American studies and helped ensure he earned his degree. UF Provost Andrew Sorensen worked with other students who had the disease to make sure they received degrees or had them awarded posthumously, she said.

Ankrum died on Election Day 1992, months after seeing Bill Clinton and Al Gore speak on the UF campus. He was a Clinton supporter and had his vote cast by absentee ballot, Lewis said.

She said the students in the support group were conscious of their mortality, with one writing a biography and others their own eulogies to ensure their memories lived on.

"They did not want to be forgotten," she said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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