ST. PETERSBURG — Greg Stemm felt death coming.
He saw it steal away his friends during the AIDS epidemic. He went to a funeral every other month through much of the late 1980s and '90s. He mourned. He questioned.
Then, in March 1992, he tested HIV positive with his then-partner, Mitch. A doctor told them they shouldn't expect to live much more than a few years. Stemm, of Gulfport, was 31 at the time.
He now calls his survival a miracle. On Saturday, he walked for all those who didn't survive at the annual Tampa Bay AIDS Walk in Vinoy Park. Nearly 1,000 others walked alongside him, some participating in a 5-kilometer run.
With each step, he thought of those he lost — some of the first people he met when, after graduating from college, he moved to the Tampa Bay area from Ohio. In past AIDS Walks, he had been on fundraising teams. This year — the event's 13th annual — he kept mostly to himself and reflected.
He remembered the time he sat with Mitch and how they held each other. He thought of his own mortality. He talked to God.
"We thought we were going to die," he said, looking back. "I saw it all around me."
Back then, his doctor told him he shouldn't expect to live past 40. So, he decided to cram 40 more years of living into four. He and Mitch vowed to stay with each other to ensure neither spent their dying days alone.
They bought a dream house and packed it with expensive furniture. They traveled to places they always wanted to visit, like Costa Rica.
"I call it our, 'What difference does it make?' phase," Stemm said.
"We entertained, we lived. We really, really lived," he said. The couple, who broke up in 2000, racked up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills. "But we would just look at each other and say, 'What difference does it make?' "
You can't pay bills from the grave.
He saw the way the disease ravaged his friends. He had to wear scrubs and a surgical mask to visit one of them. He had wanted to protest, until a doctor explained it wasn't for his protection, but his friend's. AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — drastically lowers one's resistance to infection.
Stemm found himself back in front of the same doctor in 1996.
"Greg," he recalled her telling him. "I have such wonderful news for you: There's these new drugs."
If he took them as prescribed, she said, he would probably live a long life.
"I don't know of any other time where you face a terminal illness then a few years later you have a reverse course," Stemm said.
He went though different drug cocktails and handfuls of pills. He was part of a generation of AIDS survivors who were basically guinea pigs for a medical community scrambling to give patients hope.
But he survived. And now, he advocates. He often works with Empath Partners in Care — a group that helps him manage his own health care — to support the HIV/AIDS community and fund research to find a cure.
But he wasn't always as outspoken about his status.
Stemm, a writer for the LBGT magazine Watermark, came out to his readers as HIV positive a few years ago.
People aren't embarrassed to say they have cancer, so Stemm wondered, why should he be ashamed of HIV?
"I do believe, as long-term survivors, we need to lead by example and show newly diagnosed people that they can calm down," he said. "Let's take the stigma out of this. It's a disease like any other disease."
Stemm's T-cells, a vital component of the body's immune system, are higher now than they were when he was first diagnosed. However, because his T-cell count did eventually drop below 200, he said he'll always have a clinical diagnosis of AIDS.
But now he's in good health and surrounded by loving friends. AIDS taught him how to appreciate his time on earth.
"From being a disease all about dying, it's now a disease that's all about living," Stemm said.
He'll be celebrating his 56th birthday at the end of this month.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.