Battling AIDS: One Graduate's Story

On February 18, the New York Times reported an amazing discover. Yung-Kang Chow, a fourth-year M.D./Ph.D student at Harvard Medical School, discovered a new approach to combatting HIV-1, the most common form of the AIDS virus. Chow found he could prevent the virus from duplicating and spreading through a new technique he called "convergent combination therapy." His method uses three different drugs to render the AIDS virus incapable or reproduction. In the laboratory, Chow was able to overpower the virus.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would begin testing Chow's new therapy this spring at 10 sites, including Harvard. But all this wasn't soon enough for one patient.

On February 20--two days after the announcement of Chow's finding--Robert A. Rafsky '68 died of AIDS-related complications at New York University Hospital. He was 47, and would have been invited to his 25th Harvard reunion this spring.


For most of those 47 years, Rafsky led a life many Harvard students could expect. Originally from Philadelphia, Rafsky enrolled in the fall of 1963, lived in Wigglesworth, volunteered at the Loeb Drama Center and did little schoolwork. In fact, he did less schoolwork than most, and was expelled.

He was readmitted in 1964, and this time he did enough work to stay. He also got elected to The Crimson, and became its managing editor.


Rafsky left Harvard in 1968. He tried teaching, but eventually settled on jobs that earned him a more comfortable living. He worked in public relations in New York. He got married and had a daughter, Sara. But in 1985, he came out of the closet and divorced his wife. Sometime, probably in 1987, he contracted AIDS.

It didn't take long for Rafsky to become involved in the AIDS cause. In 1987, he joined ACT-UP. His background in public relations, his working knowledge of the media, even his long hours of experience at The Crimson made him an asset to the group.

"My then-lover, who learned he was HIV-positive at about the same time I did, dragged me to an ACT-UP meeting," Rafsky wrote last November in Queer World. "I found myself using my knowledge of the media to help them get recognition."

But no matter how much progress ACT-UP made, nothing moved fast enough for Rafsky. He soon became a hero of the cause. He worked his way onto 60 Minutes, where CBS reporter Ed Bradley followed him into a ACT-UP protest at a Japanese pharmaceuticals plant in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

He said the pharmaceuticals company, and others like it, were taking too long to develop drugs to treat AIDS. He called one employee of the plant a "murderer" as the worker left the facility. It made for great TV.

"If he's going to stay where he is with power over my life and do nothing and go home every day and eat dinner and think he's fine human being. I'm going to call him a murderer, and I do have the right," Rafsky said when Bradley questioned his tactics. "The problem is that if everybody does business as usual, goes through all the regular routine processes of their day-to-day life, we will all die."

Confront everyone, make noise, take your case to the Village Voice and the New York Times. This, Rafsky believed, was the way to eventually find a cure for AIDS.

Last year, Rafsky found the ultimate opportunity to use his strategy. The frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, a Southern governor named Bill Clinton, was campaigning desperately to save his political life in the New York primary. Clinton was just the sort of smug, shallow politician a desperate man seeking action hates.

So at a fundraiser for Clinton in midtown Manhattan, Rafsky employed his favorite tool: confrontation, with just a hint of humor. And he won huge media coverage.

Rafsky: This is the center of the epidemic. What are you going to do about it?

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