Living His Life With Aids `I Know I'm Not Well. I Know What I Have,' Teenager Says

Posted: May 11, 1998

Not the laugh in his voice, the shine in his eyes, the song on his lips or the friends by his side say anything tragic about 17-year-old Teddy DePrince.

The metal tag dangling from a silver chain around his neck - engraved with ``Hemophiliac'' in red letters - offers the first clue.

The small mountain of pills he takes three times a day is another. Then there are the weeks of missed school. The lingering fevers. The weight loss. The afternoon fatigue.

Two weeks from the prom, a month from graduation, three months from college and the rest of his life, the AIDS in his blood is killing Teddy DePrince, and he knows it.

``I know I'm not well. I know what I have,'' says Teddy, fighting off yet another headache with french fries and a cheeseburger. ``It's just not a happy thought to think about. So I don't think about it.''

* ``Yo, dude, what's up for tonight?''

It's a question Teddy has posed a thousand times to his best friend, Allen Kent, while stretching the kitchen phone cord halfway around the house. ``Yeah, OK, that sounds good.''

Allen, 18, knows all about the AIDS and the hemophilia and Teddy's two brothers who were hemophiliacs and who died after being infused with tainted blood plasma products. Cubby DePrince died five years ago at age 11. Nine months later, Mike DePrince died at age 15.

All five of Elaine and Charles DePrince's sons were born with hemophilia. Mike, Teddy and Cubby were adopted in the 1980s, and the DePrinces discovered afterward that the boys were HIV-positive. Their two biological elder sons, Erik and Adam, do not have HIV.

The DePrinces believe Teddy was infected when he was a toddler. He was diagnosed with HIV when he was in grade school. In fifth grade, when Teddy was 10, his infection-fighting white blood cell count fell below the 200 mark, signaling the onset of AIDS. The average immune system maintains a white blood cell count of 800 to 1,200, making most airborne or waterborne diseases harmless to a healthy adult.

Like thousands of AIDS survivors - the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, says 259,000 Americans are living with AIDS, of whom 2,953 are teenagers - Teddy has been able to bolster his cell count and inhibit the virus with different combinations of powerful medicines.

But the anti-AIDS drugs that have so far helped Teddy maintain a 3.56 grade point average, write for the high school newspaper, sing in the chorus, and win the heart of a young woman are failing him.

His last reliable blood test two months ago showed that his white blood cell count has dropped to just below 200 for the first time in several years. His viral load - the amount of HIV in his body - has mushroomed from the low hundreds two years ago to more than 40,000 now.

``I don't know if we can say anymore that he's surviving this,'' said Elaine DePrince, whose family is suing the manufacturers of blood products, contending that the infection of her sons was preventable. ``We keep running out of drugs to use.''

To buy more time, Teddy will start chemotherapy this summer while waiting for new drugs to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. No one is sure whether the new drugs will work for Teddy or for how long because he has a tendency to build a resistance to new drugs quickly.

* Allen, the friend who knows all of this, looks at Teddy and says: ``You are a pervert.''

The two start cracking up.

It's lunchtime at Cherry Hill High School East, and Teddy and Allen are holding court in the cafeteria, talking about, among other things, girls, the impending prom and cutting class.

``Why is it that we cut class together and I get caught and you never do?'' Allen demands, emptying his pockets of pink ``cut slips'' that add up to detention.

Teddy, his black eyebrows arched, his lips pressed into a silent smile, shrugs.

The two make an odd pair with their contrasting looks: Teddy is lanky and brown, part Puerto Rican, part Jewish, with black hair and eyes. Allen is blond and blue-eyed, with wavy hair and short sideburns often tucked under a purple baseball cap.

The boys met in the seventh grade at Beck Middle School and hit it off. Although some parents, fearing for their children's safety, did not allow their children to associate with the DePrince boys, Allen's parents did.

But as the two became better friends, the Kents warned their son not to get too attached; they reminded him that Teddy could die at any time.

``By then, it was too late. We were already close,'' said Allen, who has two brothers of his own. ``I would say we are brothers, but brothers fight. We've never fought about anything. We are closer than brothers. We are inseparable.''

It is Teddy who listens and consoles when Allen is upset about his girlfriend. It was Allen who drove Teddy around when his parents punished him once by revoking his driving privileges.

And it is Allen who often nags Teddy about taking his pills on time, who reminds him to eat, who tells him to go home when he looks tired, and who worries.

``Ted does a lot more than most people,'' said Allen, listing Ted's after-school voice lessons, piano lessons and involvement in Casual Harmony, an elite high school vocal group. ``He is friends with the entire school. You know, most of his friends, they say, `Oh, we don't look at the AIDS when we look at Ted.' They know about it, but they don't really know. They don't know what he's going through.''

Teddy's daily doses of medication usually make him feel like vomiting or sleeping. The self-administered injections of blood-clotting agent three times a week do not entirely prevent the dark bruises, or internal ``bleeds,'' from appearing on his body. Last week, the wide web of skin between his right thumb and forefinger was swollen and dark - a bleed from pressing too hard on the steering wheel of his car.

Though friends and family say he rarely, if ever, complains, AIDS and hemophilia have also hurt Teddy in less tangible ways.

``I'm scared to kiss you because of AIDS . . . ,'' reads the note from a girl Teddy liked in his sophomore year. A romantic relationship never developed. Last summer, another girl's parents ``freaked out,'' he said, when she and Ted started spending a lot of time together. The friendship never fully recovered.

Football was out of the question for a hemophiliac, so Ted thought about joining the swim team, but practices were too draining. He made an attempt at volleyball one season, but the tips of his fingers became so badly bruised that he had to quit.

Doctors said no to Ted's wish to attend music school in New York, where his older brother, Erik, attends the School of Visual Arts. To maintain his health, Teddy will live at home and commute to Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University.

``He is one of the most well-adjusted human beings I've ever met,'' said his brother, Erik, who deferred college for four years to stay home with Teddy after their two brothers died. To help heal each other, every day the brothers went to a McDonald's around the corner from their house - even on Christmas Day - and talked over Big Macs.

``Ted makes his life as normal as possible. He simply does not complain,'' said Erik, 24. ``He focuses on the positive stuff.''

But watching their two brothers wither and die ``aged Ted very quickly,'' Erik said. The deaths affected the whole family, but Ted, his family said, was well-aware that his life could end the same way.

``He does not have that feeling of invincibility that most teenagers have. He knows how precious life is,'' said Erik. ``Ted will never have the need to do the wild stuff that college kids do. He is skipping over all of the drinking and smoking and getting right to the important stuff: education, love. He is skipping to the things he'll want to remember. He realizes he doesn't have enough time for any of the meaningless stuff.''

Sometimes, his friends and family worry that Teddy is trying to accomplish too much, too fast. They find themselves peering at his face for signs of fatigue, taking mental note of the number of sniffles or sneezes.

``We worry all the time, but what good does it do?'' said Elaine DePrince. ``He needs to have a life.''

* On this Wednesday afternoon, Teddy's life is just fine. He is in the high school's music rehearsal room with a few friends, sitting on a countertop, knees bouncing, feet swinging, laughing hard at someone's bad joke. Teddy is buoyant, full of energy.

``He might have a bad headache right now, but you would never know it because he would never say it,'' Allen says, looking at him from across the room. ``If he is sick, he comes to school with a smile on his face. He puts on a good show.''

In a pair of baggy corduroys and a white T-shirt, Teddy does not stand out among the 1,750 students hustling through the halls of Cherry Hill East. He tackles his girlfriend at her locker, ducking low to grab her knees and laughing.

``Gotcha!'' he says. He wraps his arms around her and whirls her around the dim hallway, through a crowd of students.

Teddy and the girl have been dating for seven months. She knew he had AIDS before he asked her out, and before she agreed to a date, she questioned him about it.

``He said he wouldn't put me at risk and I trusted him,'' she said. ``There are restrictions in every relationship, and we have them in ours.''

It helped that she knew that Teddy speaks to teenagers around the country, advocating abstinence (``If I can do it, you can do it'') and acting as a living warning against AIDS, telling them, ``You don't want this.''

For that effort, Teddy will receive the first annual Young Hero's Award from Erik's Wish, a charity and educational organization founded for Erik Emanuel Boelkow, a Cherry Hill boy who died of leukemia five years ago at age 13 while waiting for a bone marrow transplant.

Ted will receive the award - a bronze angel statuette - Saturday night at the Jewish Community Center.

``He is a shining light in the community,'' said Mary Magaziner, Erik Boelkow's grandmother and member of the Erik's Wish executive board, which chose Teddy for the award. ``Teddy has a tremendous will to live. And he has helped others. Those are heroic qualities.''

Today, the young hero is leaning against a fence, squinting in the sun and cheering on his girlfriend in a lacrosse game while promising his best friend that he will call to rent the prom limo soon. ``Stop worrying! It'll be fine.''

In a few hours, he will go home, swallow his second dose of 10 anti-AIDS pills and pack for a weekend school singing trip to Maryland. Along with T-shirts and jeans, he will pack his needles and blood-clotting agent, and more than 60 pills.

``I'm a cheerful person. I've got a lot of great things in my life, and that is what I focus on,'' Teddy said. ``I don't wake up thinking all these morbid thoughts. I wake up every day and I think, `I can't wait to see my girlfriend today.' ''

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