ATLANTA, Ga - In Grady Memorial Hospital's busy emergency department in downtown Atlanta, every patient is offered an HIV test, regardless of why the patient is seeking treatment. Doctors there have discovered a troubling pattern of patients being diagnosed so late in the game, they are not just HIV-positive, they have clinical AIDS. That means their immune system has already been wiped out by the HIV virus. That is what happened to Russell Martin. He is sharing his story because he feels lucky to still be alive.
When Martin, who was then 35, walked into Grady in November of 2012, he had no clue just how sick he was.
"I was having complications with breathing," Martin remembers. "And, I just thought I had a cold."
"He was incredibly ill," said Dr. Johnathan Colasanti, Associate Medical Director of the Grady Infectious Disease Program.
Dr. Colasanti said Martin had a type of pneumonia doctors typically only see when a patient's immune system has been completely wiped out. It is an opportunistic infection that develops when patients have a serious underlying condition weakening their body's defenses.
Russell was so sick, he couldn't breathe. He had to be placed into a medically-induced coma, spending two and a half months on a ventilator in Grady's ICU. Martin, it turns out, was not only HIV-positive, he had developed clinical AIDS, the final stage of the disease.
"Generally, at that point, it means someone has been infected for a good 5-8, even 10 years." Dr. Colasanti said.
These late-stage diagnoses are a troubling trend in Atlanta, which ranks fifth in the U.S. when it comes to new HIV cases. Statewide, it is estimated about a third of HIV patients are diagnosed late.
The numbers are even higher at Grady. The emergency department staff offers every patient an HIV test. Grady officials said half of the patients who test positive there have already developed AIDS. Russell Martin is one of those patients.
Martin believes he was infected by a former boyfriend, who, he said, never disclosed his HIV status. But, Martin never got tested, partly because of the stigma, partly because he never really thought he was at risk. So, the virus slowly wiped out his immune system.
"Thankfully for him it wasn't too late," Dr. Colasanti said. "But for anyone else in the same situation, it could be too late."
When Martin finally went home after four months in Grady, he said he felt depressed, juggling "35 to 40" pills a day to help his body fight of all the infections he was battling. But, over time, he said he started to realize how lucky he was to get a second chance. So, he set out to do everything in his power to manage his illness.
Three years later, Martin takes just two anti-retroviral drugs a day, faithfully. He never misses a dose.
He said he feels "blessed."
"Because there are so many people who were younger than me, and in better shape than me, that didn't make it," Martin said.
Russell Martin does not know why he got this second chance, but he is making the most of it. After years of putting off law school, he applied. At 38, he just finished his first year.
"Once you come that close to death, you realize you can't put anything on hold anymore," Martin said. "You have to get down to business. That's what I did."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine HIV testing for everyone from age 13 to 64. Testing typically involves a blood draw or oral swab. Many centers offer rapid HIV tests that can offer a quick result while you wait. To find a testing site in your area visit www.locator.aids.gov and then type your zip code into the search box.