A Gay Athlete's Journey: Todd Searcy Tackles AIDS
Part 3: Geneva's Todd Searcy overcomes pain and finds some peace in his advocacy, his art and the friends who have accepted him for who he is.
- Author's Note: Todd Searcy, football star and honors student at Geneva High School from 1979-1983, decided to divulge the story of his journey as a gay athlete because he wants to share what he has learned about how to cope and survive, with the hope of helping others. This is the third of a three-part series. —Martha Quetsch
Todd Searcy stayed with his parents in Sahuarita, AZ, for three years, battling AIDS-related illnesses and the side effects of medications. During that time, the former Geneva all-star athlete had to sell the home he had owned in a nearby community since 2000. And, he had to give up a successful career selling accounting software and hardware because he didn’t have the energy to continue working.
Searcy also knew that, as someone with AIDS, he was vulnerable in the workplace to catching a cold or a multitude of other illnesses that could be deadly for him. The situation was demeaning for him at first, he said.
“I went from making six figures to nothing,” Searcy said.
Since he was able to move out of his parents’ home in 2006, Searcy has resided alone in a condo in Arizona, living a secluded existence. But Searcy has stayed in contact by telephone with friends, including former GHS teammate Jeff Hill and their former high school football coach Jerry Auchstetter, and those relationships have helped him to cope with his situation, he said.
Hill was among the few people from Geneva that Searcy told he had AIDS after he informed his family because he was afraid of how others might react. Hill realized how difficult the process was for Searcy.
“It was a huge struggle for Todd to come out,” Hill said.
In 2007, Searcy took a trip to Las Vegas with Hill and another close, straight friend from high school. Traveling is risky for him because of his compromised immune system, but he thought it was worth it.
“I really needed to get away, see my friends and just know life existed,” Searcy said.
Searcy has been infected several times in recent years with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcusaureus), a staph germ that does not get better with the first-line antibiotics that usually cure staph infections.
People whose immune systems are weak, like Searcy’s, are extremely susceptible to MRSA. He has had multiple surgeries to remove huge MRSA cysts from his skin. He bathes in Hibiclens, the liquid anticeptic surgeons use to wash their hands before operations.
“It’s the only thing I know of that stops MRSA,” Searcy said.
Searcy overcame the hopelessness he felt when he first found out he had AIDS by using the approach he took in other areas of his life, from sports to academics: He applied himself, researching his illnesses and learning everything he could about HIV and AIDS.
A combination of the HIV medicines Kaletra and Combivere have kept his viral load down. Nevertheless, he must be vigilant about taking his medication twice a day, even though the drugs cause extreme nausea and fatigue. In addition to suffering from the side effects of his medications, Searcy has severe stomach aches and neuropathy, a symptom of HIV that causes intense pain in his extremities. He does not like taking pain killers, because the daily dose he needs causes diarrhea and makes him feel “zoned out”
“I can’t do anything. I can’t function,” he said.
Searcy uses medical marijuana, when he can obtain it. In Arizona, marijuana may be used on a limited basis for those with qualifying illnesses. It is the most effective substance Searcy has found to alleviate pain and nausea, working more quickly than pain pills and without the debilitating side effects. It was difficult for Searcy to admit his use of pot because of the social stigma. But now he is a vocal advocate for broadening the legalization of medical marijuana in Arizona and elsewhere, even attending government meetings on the issue despite the infection risks from sitting in a room full of people.
Searcy never used marijuana or alcohol in high school, nor did his friends, he said.
Hill confirmed that.
“The team stayed away from that stuff,” Hill said.
Searcy said he does not use marijuana recreationally. This summer, when Searcy learned that a friend in Illinois was suffering from pain and nausea related to cancer and chemotherapy, Searcy said he wished that person could benefit from medical marijuana but knew his friend wouldn't have access because medical marijuana is not legal in Illinois. Illinois state representatives during their veto session Nov. 27 to Dec. 6 may vote on proposed medical marijuana bill which passed the Senate but still needs three votes for House approval, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
Searcy has researched the benefits and side effects of medical marijuana extensively.
“I find out everything I can, learn what I can, and I want to share what I learn with others,” Searcy said.
Hill said Searcy has had that attitude toward challenges ever since he met him in middle school in Geneva.
“He is a very bright and logical person,” Hill said.
Searcy does not have the energy to grow the 12 marijuana plants allowed by Arizona law, so he has a caregiver grow them for him. He uses two strains of marijuana, Indica to help him sleep and ease pain, and Sativa, which helps energize him and relieve nausea from his HIV medications during the day.
“You become your own pharmacist,” Searcy said.
Although marijuana helps, Searcy experiences ups and downs physically, he said. Last September through October and then from December through January, he was not doing well. Lately, he is doing OK, he said.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” Searcy said.
Catching MRSA again was just one health risk Searcy took when he flew to Illinois in 2010 to accept the Geneva Viking Hall of Fame award. Not only did he risk exposure to illness on the plane to Chicago, which for him was like a “Petrie dish of germs,” he also risked ridicule or rejection, he felt, from Genevans who might for the first time find out he was gay.
He received counseling in Arizona before the trip to help him bolster his courage. What Searcy found during his Geneva trip was that his former high school friends and others were surprisingly accepting of who he was.
When Searcy returned to Geneva to accept the Hall of Fame award, he attended several parties that followed the ceremony. A high school friend was there, and Searcy thought he would be afraid to speak to him.
“He wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone,” Searcy said.
Searcy said he realized that his friend needed to see that he was the same person he used to be.
“I think people thought I would have a tutu on, or have a lisp,” Searcy said.
That friend and others at the parties warmed up to Searcy after seeing he was the amiable person he was in high school.
“When they saw me, they realized I was the same guy,” Searcy said.
Searcy acknowledged that he shied away from renewing old friendships because of his own insecurity based on the difficult experiences that people he knew had when they “came out.”
“A lot of that was my own fear,” Searcy said.
Searcy appreciates that his former high school varsity coach, Jerry Auchstetter, calls Searcy every few weeks to see how he is doing. Auchstetter said the fact that Searcy is gay is irrelevant to him.
“I know my feelings weren’t changed in any way when he came out,” Auchstetter said. “I assured him that I respected him and always will.”
Knowing that people from his past, and present, do not judge him the way he feared has helped Searcy cope with the stress of his situation.
“My life is all about friends now,” Searcy said.
Searcy copes with his isolated situation through painting, inspired by his mother, Mary Ellen, who also is an artist, and by Impressionist painters. His hobby started when he was looking for something to cover up an electrical outlet in his apartment. He walked down the block to an art store and bought two brushes, an art canvas and three colors.
“I thought, I can do this. And I came home, and I did it,” Searcy said. “I put it up and it covered everything perfectly. I thought, well, this is kind of fun.”
Now, he immerses himself in his art, particularly during the hot summer months in Arizona when he has to stay indoors. His walls are covered with his paintings.
Without this artistic outlet, he admits he would be depressed at his situation.
“I wouldn’t have an outlet, I wouldn’t have anything to give me joy,” Searcy said.
Mostly, he draws solace from the acceptance he finally has received.
“It took me more than 30 years to figure it out,” Searcy said. “I couldn’t expect others to do differently.”