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Sunday 13 November 2016

Surviving HIV.. and now the earthquake

Posted in: Health & HIV, True Stories
By Jay Bennie - 27th February 2011

When Tuesday's devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, two gay men had been doing the usual unremarkable daily stuff.

They'd just been to the supermarket. Bruce was still out and about in the car doing a few more messages, while Grant, at home, was putting away the groceries.

Driving in a line of traffic Bruce eyed a Woolston building which had been damaged in the September quake. The structure suddenly collapsed before his eyes. Gone in a cloud of dust which billowed onto the road and surrounded the vehicles. Under his car the road twisted and heaved.

Ferry Road, Christchurch

Bruce "stopped hard, just hit the brakes and the hazard lights" and waited for the inevitable rear end impact from following vehicles... "and bugger me, no one hit my tail pipe!"

He got out of the car "like stunned mullet. I realised this earthquake was very close to home, much closer than last time." Friends lived nearby. He tried to head for their place. The roads  were "trashed and I started to work out just how  serious it was with liquefaction and damaged ground. I had to walk to our friends, when I got there their home was completely trashed".

The friends were panicking amidst the rubble and Bruce suddenly realised Grant, his partner through thick and thin for many years, was home alone. "I had to get home to find Grant."

That wasn't to easy. What would normally have been a five minute drive took over an hour. "Ferry Road was trashed... finally got home.. our drive was trashed. Found Grant out on the street looking after our elderly neighbour."

Swirling streams of liquified silt were pouring across the roads and properties. The nearby and usually placid Heathcote River was bursting its banks. "We calmed neighbours, I went to the fire station, a river was pouring out of the supermarket car park building opposite the fire station... it all looked like nuke had gone off."

At home as the quake struck, Grant had just filled the pantry with fresh groceries. "I jumped under a door frame, everything around me rocked and rolled, I watched plants cabinets, stereo, TV and everything trashed around me."

When the massive quake stopped "I dodged glass and debris, put on shoes and ran to an elderly neighbour. I heard a woman screaming, hysterical... I called out 'Can I help...?' The ground was liquifying in front of us... I comforted our old neighbours then went to another house and helped more oldies."

Dodging around the bubbling liquifying patches of ground between their houses Grant did what he could to make the pair's neighbours comfortable amidst the chaos. "There was traffic bedlam in the street, people were trying to get to the nearby school but the road was caving in."


Through the rest of the afternoon and evening a sort of calm settled over Woolston. Water and power were cut. Their suburb was shattered and their home "trashed." Eventually they found their cat, which was "freaking." Grant and Bruce managed to get to bed that night but like all the residents of our second biggest city they didn't sleep well.

Next day, Wednesday, as they tried to work out what to do, "Jacquie phoned
and said get over here." The call was from the safety of Hokitika, the caller was longtime close friend and confidant 'Tranny Granny' Jacquie Grant.

"We said 'No, we will manage," and she then issued the ultimatum: 'Get your arses over here!'"

Just getting inland from Ferry Road to Yaldhurst and the start of the West Coast Road, normally a half hour trip at most, took "three hours" of hard driving. But from then on the journey became easier.

The pair is enormously grateful to their friend in need. "She has been fabulous... we couldn't want for more." But their days in tranquil Hokitika have been impacted by the horror of the quake and its aftermath. They soon learned that friends had been killed in buildings which collapsed. And there was the 'little' matter of their HIV.


Bruce and Grant have fought off their HIV infections for over two decades but the fight has left its mark. Particularly on Bruce. His weakened, chemical-drenched body and compromised immune system have seen him face a daunting series of operations and medical interventions in recent years. "His body weight has dropped alarmingly, but he continues to keep on going. Time and again he falters and even ends up in a wheelchair and you fear its the end, but somehow he finds the strength to pull back from the edge again and again," says Jacquie Grant.

People with HIV, and in New Zealand that is overwhelmingly gay and bi men, must stick rigorously to a complicated regime of medications, including toxic anti-retrovirals, which must be taken at set times of every day. Miss more than a dose or two and the deadly virus can break through the chemical barrier. Only a new combination of drugs will then stop it, and there are only a few combinations available at the best of times. Missing your meds means you kiss goodbye to one of the few chances you have to keep the deadly virus under some control.

"I realised I didn't have enough anti-retrovirals and other meds," says an exhausted Bruce. "I tried to contact our doctor in Lyttleton, but nothing. Same with the hospital specialist. Lyttelton was cut off from the world, its commercial area shattered by the quake. Christchurch's hospitals were racing to cope with the huge influx of badly maimed and injured 'quake victims.

Safe in Hokitika, uninjured by the 'quake but with his frail constitution reeling from the disaster Bruce was "only just making sense."

Jacquie got things moving in nearby Greymouth, says Bruce. "We gave the wonderful receptionist at Grey Base Hospital details for them to contact the necessary people in Christchurch so by time we drove from Jacquie's to Greymouth they had the information they needed to help. We were ushered virtually straight through in front of all other non-urgent appointments. Dr Greville Wood saw the shock I was still in... he sat me down and got me to breathe and calm down so he could assist."

Bruce can't speak too highly of Wood and his West Coast team "who sorted it all out on the spot. He took me personally to the pharmacy to organise replacement meds to be couriered overnight from Christchurch. By the time we left he had alleviated a lot of the stress and anxiety over keeping ourselves well."

As of today, Sunday, Grant and Bruce are trying to relax, taking walks and pulling through with Jacquie Grant's support and home comforts. They will remain in Hokitika for some days yet, rebuilding their strength towards the inevitable return to Christchurch to face the battered remains of their traumatic past and find the strength to keep looking to the future.

Frail they may be, but 25 years of fighting HIV has proven their strength, individually and as a couple, and it's hard to imagine that the Christchurch earthquake will knock Bruce and Grant down for long.

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Jay Bennie - 27th February 2011