Bob Reed moved to the South Bay from Idaho in 1982, the year before Santa Clara County’s first HIV infections and AIDS deaths were recorded. He first read about the infection that became known as AIDS in 1981. Even though he was a nurse, Reed continued to have unprotected sex and embrace an “eat, drink, and be merry lifestyle,” as he describes it, for the first half of the 1980s.
By 1986, he knew he had HIV. That was confirmed with a terse phone call from his doctor after he got tested. He recalls the doctor saying only “you’re HIV positive” and then following that with “You’re a nurse so you know what that means. Call me if you need anything,” and then hanging up. The entire call lasted less than two minutes.
Reed recalls even then, five years into the epidemic and the year after Rock Hudson’s death, there was still a tremendous amount of ignorance about HIV and AIDS in the county.
His doctor told him he would be dead within six months. His apartment manager worried that he might infect other tenants just by living in the same building. In a hospital lobby, he helped himself to a bowl of popcorn put out for patients but was then reprimanded for contaminating it and making it unsafe for others.
Like many HIV/AIDS patients, Reed internalized a tremendous amount of self-loathing and felt at the time that he deserved a certain amount of this mistreatment.
A turning point came when he began receiving services from the County’s Early Intervention Program. Under the leadership of Marty Fenstersheib, it was one of the few dedicated HIV/AIDS clinics in the nation at that time. It did not do a significant amount of advertising. He learned about it the way most patients did, through word of mouth. He described its services as “life-saving.”
Ultimately, Reed would spend three years working as a nurse at the clinic. His personal experience as someone living with HIV made him especially effective. This was particularly true in the years before the AIDS cocktail became widely available, when an HIV diagnosis was considered akin to a death sentence. Reed provided an example for so many others in those years just by living his life and doing his job.
In 2004, Reed became a member of the County’s HIV/AIDS Planning Council for Prevention and Care, now known as the Santa Clara County HIV Commission. He has been elected co-chair of the commission on two separate occasions.
Reed says overall Santa Clara County is an “exemplary” place to live for the LGBTQ community, and the County’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis was one of the best in the nation. “I’ve lived here since ’82, and I’ve stayed here because there are no villains.