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Les Gibbs, nearly 80 and HIV-positive, keeps living a full life during the coronavirus pandemic

  • “I didn’t think I’d get to 60, much less 80,” said Les Gibbs, of Lebanon, who contracted HIV in the late 1980s, and will turn 80 in July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gibbs, a retired Army Chaplain Assistant, prays during a service at Providence Presbyterian Church in West Lebanon, N.H., where he plays piano and organ. The church has been live-streaming its services and is now allowing congregation members to return on Sundays, while maintaining distance. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Medical technician Rebecca Napsey, left, draws blood from Les Gibbs at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, June, 10, 2020, to check his HIV viral load, and other routine tests. Gibbs said the presence of the virus has remained low through most of the years of the infection, for which he credits the availability of treatment through the VA and the opportunity to try new drugs as they became available. Gibbs worked for five years as a home aide for Dr. C. Everett Koop, who was surgeon general under President Ronald Reagan at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and remembers Koop’s interest in reviewing his blood work results after the quarterly tests. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Les Gibbs grew up in Hartford, Vt., before joining the Army, serving in Vietnam, and settling in San Antonio. When he returned to the Upper Valley to care for his elderly parents in 1995, he began working at a now-closed camera store and at the Vermont Toy Museum in Quechee, Vt., where he still works three days a week and has been rearranging exhibits during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Les Gibbs, of West Lebanon, packs up a stack of military issue pocket Bibles, a few of more than 100 Bibles in his collection, at a storage shed in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, May 28, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The first month of isolation due to COVID-19 was “boring,” said Les Gibbs, because the Grange meetings and week-night activities at Quail Hollow, in West Lebanon, where he lives, were canceled. To occupy his time, he started researching his family’s genealogy and cleaning his collections and belongings out of a storage shed. Gibbs leafs through a Bible, one of over 100 in his collection, at the shed in Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, May 28, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Les Gibbs, of West Lebanon, talks with Isaac Trudeau, of Lebanon, left, after a service at Providence Presbyterian Church in West Lebanon last month. Gibbs played piano for the service and Trudeau was on hand to troubleshoot equipment during the livestream. While living with HIV, which he contracted more than 30 years ago, Gibbs has not isolated himself during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everybody knows that I’ve got HIV, that’s not a secret, that’s no big deal,” Gibbs said. “You need to be out there, you need to live, you need to keep active.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Les Gibbs gets an elbow bump Wednesday, June 10, 2020, from Dr. Tom Taylor, who has been his doctor at the White River Junction, Vt., VA Medical Center since 1995. Gibbs goes for quarterly blood work at the VA and had expected to review the results via video conference with Taylor, but was able to meet with him in person. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/20/2020 9:49:45 PM
Modified: 6/20/2020 9:49:43 PM

As he was studying to become a mortician in San Antonio in the 1980s, Les Gibbs focused a final paper for a sociology course on the stigma associated with HIV.

Though his community college professor told him the paper went unnecessarily “beyond” the associate degree he was aiming for, Gibbs, now a West Lebanon resident, said he learned through surveys and interviews that many people with HIV were self-isolating because they were afraid to make their diagnosis known.

“It’s how you perceive it,” he said from under a bandanna during an interview this month at a picnic table outside the Hartford Town Hall. “You need to be out there. You need to live. You need to keep active.”

As a mortician, Gibbs, who later contracted HIV himself, said he was able to identify with the families of people who died of AIDS. He learned to apply cosmetics to cover up the characteristic splotches of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that sometimes develops in people whose immune systems are weakened by HIV or AIDS.

“Don’t close the casket,” he would tell families. “This isn’t a stigma. This is life.”

While many people with underlying health conditions are isolating themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gibbs has taken his own advice and continues to live an active life — working, playing music and learning new things — as he approaches his 80th birthday next month.

Born at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon in July 1940, he was the son of two working parents — his father Harry worked for a plumbing company and his mother Catherine for an insurance company — and grew up in Hartford with a much younger sister, Leslie, who now lives in Nevada.

He spent much of his time in his younger years studying music, participating in the Hartford High School band as first chair clarinet and singing in the choir. During the summer, he worked on a nearby farm and he and the other hired hands would shoot woodchucks for target practice in their off hours.

All this prepared him for a life in the Army, which is where he went after graduating from high school in 1958. Despite initially planning to serve as a cook, he spent more than 20 years in the chaplain corps of the Army, including leading choirs in Korea, Vietnam and Italy and on bases in the U.S. It was during his time in the Army that he met and married his late ex-wife, Jean Marie, who died in 2015. They had two sons, Mark and David, who live in Texas.

As his father was dying in 1995, Gibbs returned to the Upper Valley, and since then has worked in a camera shop, at a convenience store, in a toy museum and as a caregiver for the late Dr. C. Everett Koop, who lived in Hanover and served as U.S. Surgeon General during the Reagan administration.

Gibbs has a wide social network scattered around the Upper Valley and beyond. He’s served as an organist in numerous churches, is a past master of the Vermont State Grange and continues to be an active member, although grange activities have been hindered due to COVID-19. He has been a bass drummer for a bagpipe band. He’s offered support for others with HIV and spoken on the topic at schools around the region.

“We joke that he pretty much knows everybody,” said the Rev. Tim Herndon, the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in West Lebanon where Gibbs plays piano.

For example, Herndon said he once had something that needed to be framed, and Gibbs took it to a shop Herndon, who has lived in the Upper Valley for 20 years, had never seen before. When Gibbs walked in, the people in the store greeted him by name.

“He’s full of joy,” Herndon said. “He’s someone who is not afraid to just be living life.”

Joy is something Gibbs readily shares with others in part through his music. Gibbs is talented not just in the quality of his playing, but in his ability to respond as a congregation sings along, Herndon said.

“He’s just a great help as we sing,” Herndon said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Quail Hollow, the senior living complex where Gibbs lives, has been on lockdown since March. That means that visitors aren’t allowed, group meetings have been canceled and dining rooms taped off. Residents are required to wear masks when they leave their apartments and only two people are allowed in the mail and laundry rooms at any one time.

Gibbs, who lives alone, said he misses the potlucks and coffee hours that were regular parts of his routine beforehand. But, for the most part, Gibbs said he doesn’t mind these restrictions. There are only two washing machines in the laundry room anyway, he said.

In fact, he said, he sees a bright side to the challenging time. Neighbors have been checking in on each other to sort out who needs what before they go to the store and just to see how they’re doing.

“I think it’s brought us closer together,” he said.

And he’s optimistic that if the community continues to go without cases of COVID-19, they might be able to resume certain activities such as playing bingo or music outside.

In the meantime, Gibbs has continued to do many of the activities outside of Quail Hollow he did before the pandemic. He continues to play the piano for the Providence Presbyterian Church each Sunday, although many congregants had been participating in the services via Zoom until restrictions eased up in recent weeks.

Also during the pandemic, Gibbs continues to work at the Vermont Toy Museum in Quechee, dusting and rearranging items such as Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys in preparation for reopening, which he expects to happen sometime next month.

He’s a collector of items ranging from Easter eggs to clocks and steins. His collections fill his one-bedroom apartment and he stores the overflow in storage units.

“I live in a museum,” he said.

He’s spent some time during the pandemic sorting through things and also has taken the time to research his family genealogy online. He spent time learning about his ex-wife’s family line and learned they both had family members in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

“It’s been fun,” he said.

Gibbs is a survivor in more than one way. In addition to having HIV, Gibbs survived a childhood battle with scarlet fever that kept him out of school for most of first grade, as well as a heart attack 15 years ago and chronic kidney disease.

He said he contracted HIV in July 1989 when a friend accidentally cut himself on a glass at a barbecue and the friend’s blood splashed onto Gibbs’ face. When Gibbs found out in November that the friend had HIV, he and others at the July barbecue were tested. Gibbs’ test came back positive.

Although HIV is more likely to be transmitted through unprotected sex with someone with untreated HIV, by sharing needles for injecting drugs with someone with HIV or through a blood transfusion with contaminated blood, it also can be transmitted via body fluid splashes to the eye, nose or mouth. That risk, however, is estimated to be only 1 in 1,000 or 0.1%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After his diagnosis, Gibbs sought support from a friend and military chaplain who told him not to despair because “God controls our lives.”

He took that to heart and went to the nearest Veterans Administration hospital. He has been receiving treatment ever since. He switched his care to the White River Junction VA Medical Center when he moved back to Vermont in 1995. He’s never had any symptoms from HIV, he said. One of the medications caused him to lose weight, but he’s been satisfied with the care he’s received.

“Life goes on,” he said.

These days he’s more worried about his cholesterol than he is his HIV, he said.

People with HIV who manage it through medication are at no greater risk of developing serious symptoms due to COVID-19 than others, said Dr. Bryan Marsh, who is medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s HIV program.

“Those people have an immune system that is basically as healthy as someone without HIV,” Marsh said. “Most community infections don’t affect them any differently.”

While there had initially been some hope that one HIV antiviral drug, Kaletra, might be useful against COVID-19, Marsh said that did not prove to be the case.

For his part, Gibbs said he thinks wearing masks is a reasonable precaution to take to keep the coronavirus at bay, noting that people in places such as China where the air pollution is bad wear masks all the time. But he’s not likely to let it stop him from being active.

Herndon, the church pastor, said Gibbs trusts in God for his days on earth and doesn’t live as though he’s in control.

“I don’t think he’s reckless,” Herndon said. “He’s not fearful.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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