The Positive Side

Spring/Summer 2009 

Profile: The Comeback Kid

Ottawa PHA Dave Pineau has dealt with some serious blows during his life, but his unbreakable desire to help others always brings him back.

By Astrid Van Den Broek

THE MESSAGE WAS BLUNT: “We regret to inform you that your blood has tested positive for the HIV virus,” read the letter from the Canadian Red Cross Society. For David Pineau, then 24 years old in the late spring of 1985, the world stopped. “It was like I was frozen in time,” he recalls, “like I was having an out-of-body experience looking down at myself holding this letter in disbelief.”

This life-changing moment was handled with such little care and compassion that Pineau vowed to help others living with HIV and hepatitis C. (He is co-infected with both viruses.) Ever since, he has worked to contribute to the HIV community as best he can. While he occasionally faces a setback, Pineau is definitely a comeback kid who has decided to give back.

 

PINEAU WAS 18 YEARS OLD in 1979 when he and his girlfriend left his hometown of Windsor, Ontario to head to Vancouver. Life at home was hard and he had dropped out of school three years earlier after having fallen in with a crowd that pressured him to experiment with drugs, mostly light stuff like marijuana. Life in Vancouver with his girlfriend looked promising at first. “But then I started drinking and things weren’t good for her,” Pineau says. “Eventually, I ended up on the street.”

On the street, Pineau befriended a group of people who were drinking heavily and using harder drugs such as cocaine. “Everybody was into sharing needles at that time,” he recollects. “In those days, HIV wasn’t even a word. It was called GRID — gay-related immunodeficiency disease. Being a heterosexual man, I figured I had nothing to worry about.”

That was the beginning of a dangerous ping-pong game for Pineau. For eight to 10 months at a time, he would live on the streets, seeking drugs and working odd jobs. Then he would stop using, land a job and find a place to live. Sooner or later, there would be a trigger, such as a friend from the street, and he’d bounce back to his street life. And so it went for four years, until he met a woman.

“She wasn’t a street person. She was working full time and came from a good family,” Pineau says. Her influence was a healthy one — he finished high school and got a job — and the couple moved in together. Life was good as a twosome, and Pineau even started joining her on charity initiatives, such as donating blood.
Then that letter arrived, putting an end to Pineau’s relationship and, he thought, his life. He called the doctor’s number at the bottom of the letter. “I asked her how long I have to live and she said three to five years if I was lucky,” he says. “I asked if there was anything to do to improve my chances. She told me to stop smoking and take a multivitamin. And then she hung up.”

 

MORE THAN TWO DECADES LATER, Pineau still vividly remembers the cold and cruel treatment he endured. With his girlfriend and most of his friends gone, Pineau isolated himself. “I thought I would never have a girlfriend again,” he says. “I really struggled with that and ended up on a downward spiral.” Once again, he turned to cocaine and alcohol and found himself back on the streets. For years, he bounced between Windsor and Vancouver.

In 1992, Pineau decided that he needed to break away again, this time to Toronto. But Toronto provided no escape from his drug dependence, and eventually he landed in a men’s hostel. A year later he turned to the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (TPWAF) for support. “They helped me apply for disability insurance,” he says, “and I got an apartment through them. Things were looking better for me, even though I was still struggling with addictions.”

As life improved, Pineau began to feel the need to give back to the people who had helped him and get involved in the HIV community. He joined the speakers’ bureau at TPWAF. This volunteer role had him sharing the gritty details of his life story in high school classrooms and auditoriums across the city. The first time was knee-rattling but also enlightening. “I did an excellent job and felt so good about it after I’d finished,” Pineau says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I think I’ve found something here.’ ”

Pineau continued to speak at high schools and, later, drug and alcohol treatment centres. Not only was he helping others, he was helping himself. Sharing his story was surprisingly cathartic. “Talking helped me deal with [everything going on in my life], even better than a counsellor,” he says. “I thought if I could just reach one person and somewhere along their journey they’d remember my talk, it would be worthwhile — that was my motivation.”

During this time, Pineau was still using drugs, and one unlucky day, police raided his apartment. He was charged and convicted of possession of an illegal substance. However, because he was halfway through a six-month treatment program, his sentence was reduced to a fine. Then, a close friend arranged for Pineau to be moved to an intensive six-month drug treatment program at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

The program helped, and Pineau was able to resume what he was good at: telling his story. “One of my goals was to work at TPWAF,” he says, and so he applied for and got the position of outreach worker with the speakers’ bureau. He excelled at his job, eventually taking over as the speakers’ bureau coordinator. In 1998, Pineau undertook a new challenge — helping to set up and coordinate TPWAF’s needle exchange program. It was a team effort involving many players inside and outside the agency. “We consulted with other exchanges in the city as a baseline for developing our program,” he says. “And once the word got out, many of TPWAF’s clients started using our program regularly. It was quite a success.” Indeed, the needle exchange is still operating today.

Then a setback: Clients of the needle exchange were comfortable talking to Pineau because he could relate to their experiences. This included one woman who was heading into a dangerous situation, one that Pineau admits he didn’t know how to handle. “She was on the verge of using with somebody and sharing needles and the guy didn’t know she was HIV positive,” he says. “He also wanted to pay her for unprotected sex. She shared all this with me. I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t just let her go.” Pineau decided to help her, but he got too close to the situation and ended up relapsing. Eventually, he lost his job. “I knew that if I stayed in Toronto it was probably going to be the end of me because everywhere I went I was running into dealers or addicts,” he says. “I thought I’d end up dead.”

Once again, Pineau sought to escape the city where he was struggling to live, and in late 2000 he moved to Ottawa. “But there was something missing,” he says. “I needed to get involved again.” He turned to the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, where he received help and started giving talks to schools and community groups. He became involved in the Survive and Thrive support group, a part of the AIDS Bereavement Project of Ontario, and the group has become an important part of his support network. He tried something new as well, becoming co-editor for the Choices and Voices of Ottawa newsletter, a publication for people at risk for HIV and hepatitis C that provides information about harm reduction, safe choices and more.

 

THESE DAYS, PINEAU ENJOYS HIS WORK as a research assistant on the Positive Spaces, Healthy Places housing research project co-ordinated by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. The study has multiple sites across the province, including Bruce House, an Ottawa-based HIV residential care centre where Pineau conducts interviews with participants about health and housing issues for people with HIV. Pineau has also taken on work in the hepatitis C community. Through Ottawa’s Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, he’s training to lead workshops delivering information about hepatitis C, its prevention and treatment. Pineau was diagnosed with hep C almost a decade after his HIV diagnosis. “Although I was devastated by my hep C diagnosis, it wasn’t totally unexpected,” he says, because he knowingly shared needles with someone infected with the virus.

In terms of his own treatment, Pineau is taking anti-HIV medications, which he’s been on since 1989. His viral load is undetectable and his CD4 count is between 700 and 800. Pineau admits that adhering to his drug regimen hasn’t been easy, but today he takes his meds religiously, a habit that’s been made easier since treatments are more advanced and regimens more simplified. More advanced treatments means fewer restrictions and limitations, such as having to refrigerate meds or take them with food — requirements that can sometimes be impossible for a homeless person to fulfill. He has not taken hep C treatment due to concerns about the side effects of the therapy (depression, insomnia and flu-like symptoms). “I’m in stage 2 with my liver health — there’s some minor scarring but it’s still relatively healthy,” he says. “I’m waiting for the new treatment to be released, hopefully within the next two years.”

While Pineau finds many ways to give back to the community, he acknowledges that he still struggles with dependence. “I’ve relapsed in the past few years, but I’ve pulled myself out. I think I’m still here because I haven’t yet finished what I’m meant to do,” he says. Through all of his ups and downs, Pineau has come to believe in a motto that helps him through his own hard times and fuels his desire to help others: It is a smart person who learns from their own experiences. However, it is a wise person who learns from the experiences of others.

Astrid Van Den Broek is a Toronto-based freelance writer who’s written about health, wellness and nutrition for a number of magazines including Chatelaine, Best Health, Canadian Living and More. She also writes regularly for CrossCurrents, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s journal.

Photograph: Rémi Thériault