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Internet Support Group Helps Family Deal with AIDS

by Linda Bloom

November 30, 2000

Cathie hugging Alex.Catherine Cory plays with her son Alex. UMNS photo courtesy of the Cory family.

When he found himself unable to sleep after his wife's death on Nov. 19, Richard Cory sat down at his computer and typed an e-mail message to a friend.

The 43-year-old engineer from Chesapeake, Va., has never seen that friend -- a Ugandan doctor living in Swaziland -- in person. The connection began after the friend, whom Richard calls Dr. Alex, discovered some articles Richard had written for the Computerized AIDS Ministries (CAM) network of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, at http://gbgm-umc.org/CAM/ on the Web.

The articles detailed the struggles and triumphs of Richard and his family. Catherine, his wife, had received a blood transfusion in 1986 because of complications during the birth of their son, Alex. Two years later, when she made a blood donation, it was discovered that both Cathie and Alex, who was breast-fed, were infected with the AIDS virus.

"He had written to me about my Web pages and had said he was writing because he was discouraged and felt he wasn't making a difference," Richard explained. The doctor was seeing six to eight new patients daily who were HIV-positive, but he had no drugs to give them. Since then, they have offered each other support and encouragement via the Internet.

Dr. Alex is one of many people from around the world affected by HIV/AIDS with whom Richard has come into contact during the past decade. Along with neighbors, friends, work colleagues, and two local United Methodist congregations, they have offered support after Cathie's death at the age of 42 from liver damage, a side effect of her medication.

"I have been richly blessed," Richard wrote to his Ugandan friend. "I have been blessed by a marriage of 15 years, by a wife who even in the darkest hours was full of life and lifted the spirits of everyone around her. I've been blessed with a son who has outlived all of the doctors' expectations. He is a child who at the age of 14 has had to face the potential of his own mortality, and yet he lives on with the positive spirit he received from my wife."

As another World AIDS Day is observed on Dec. 1, Richard continues to use his religious faith to sustain him. "Cathie's passing does not mean defeat," he said. "We still have victory in death because of Christ."

Such conviction did not come easily. The Rev. Nancy Carter, CAM's system operator, remembers Richard's anger at the church when he first signed onto its new electronic bulletin board in July 1993. He had found churches to be unsupportive of his family's medical situation and was upset that his son had been refused admission to two church-run schools because of his HIV status.

"The hospitality Richard received (through CAM) and the opportunity to be in a 'church context,' even though it was an electronic one, changed his spiritual outlook and opened his mind and heart to Christ," Carter said. "The love and faith he experienced at CAM ultimately helped him to find and join a United Methodist church which also welcomed his family."

Richard, who considers Carter to be one of the "living saints" in his life, confirmed that CAM "was the first place I found that offered a message of faith and hope centered around the fact that people are living with AIDS."

The Corys also overcame their fear of disclosing their situation to others. When Alex, who had led a fairly normal life, was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS at the age of 6, Richard decided to "go public." He took training to become a Red Cross HIV/AIDS instructor, so he could educate people as well as tell his personal story, and also became a member of the speaker's bureau of the Tidewater (Va.) AIDS Crisis Task Force.

His contacts over the Internet also increased, and he still receives at least two to three e-mails a month from strangers who find the CAM Web site and feel compelled to write. Besides Swaziland, the international writers have come from Panama, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Russia, Canada, England, Germany, Yugoslavia and South Africa. One overseas correspondent thanked him "for being my angel at a time when I was very low and needed to communicate with someone who had trodden a longer road than me."

Noting his devotion to his family, Carter characterized Richard as "a remarkable man" who has experienced an amazing spiritual growth in the past seven years.

"The hope he has found through his faith in Jesus Christ has, in turn, touched many other people, including those who are a part of CAM and who have visited the Web pages he has written about his faith journey," she added. "As a result of Richard's and the church's nurturance, his teen-age son Alex has also developed a deep faith."

Richard reported that he recently let his status as an HIV/AIDS instructor lapse because the Red Cross had told him he couldn't share his faith along with the facts. "To me, that (faith) is as important, if not more important, than anything else I have to say," he explained.

The fact that a family can cope and even thrive under what used to be considered the death sentence of AIDS is another important part of the Cory story. Alex, who has not been hospitalized in more than three years, is in the marching band at his new high school and is part of the youth group at church. "He's actually a pretty normal kid other than having to take a handful of pills every morning and evening and perhaps being a bit smaller and more frail than other kids," his father said.

Cathie remained symptom-free for years but began taking antiviral medications in October 1998. Both she and Richard were active participants of their church congregation - first at Courthouse Community United Methodist Church in nearby Virginia Beach and, more recently, at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, within walking distance of their home.

But in 1999, Cathie was hospitalized for a month as the result of a liver problem known as hepatic steatosis, a known side effect of AZT, the anti-AIDS drug she was taking. Doctors also learned then that she had contracted hepatitis C, which had damaged her liver.

About a week before her death, they were told that Cathy had cirrhosis of the liver. Her sudden hospitalization and eventual death from acute respiratory distress, however, were unexpected. Still, Richard said, she retained her sense of humor until nearly the end, her biggest concern being "the big mess" she was leaving him to clean up at home.

"The last thing I did for her in the hospital was to wash her hair," Richard recalled.

Despite living with the shadow of death for years, the end of Cathie's life was a shock. When Richard came home from the hospital and pulled Alex away from his computer game to tell him the news, Richard burst into tears.

Alex was able to comfort him. "Dad, we really don't have to be sad," he told his father, "because we know she has gone to a better place."

You can send Internet e-mail to Richard at rbcory@cox.net.