CANFAR Profiles: Maggie Atkinson

It Was CANFAR-funded Research That Saved My Life, And It Is Research That Will Eventually Provide A Cure Or Vaccine To End AIDS

I was 32 years old, a lawyer with a bright future ahead of me. And then, in a matter of minutes my doctor delivered news that changed my life forever: “You have less than two years to live.” I was certain that my future, which had burned so bright, was about to be extinguished.

At the age of 22, I began a short-lived relationship with my best friend, and it was at this time – unknown to both of us – that I contracted HIV. I didn’t know anything about HIV, how it was contracted, or the devastating effect it has on the body. I was on birth control and thought I was protected.

Maggie Atkinson

Ten years later, while bedridden with a lung infection, I learned that I had full-blown AIDS and that same friend had died of an AIDS-related illness. I felt like I was lying at the gates of hell.

As my life was hanging by a thread, a CANFAR-funded researcher, Dr. Mark Wainberg, discovered an antiviral drug called 3TC. The timing could not have been better. Within two weeks of taking this new drug, I was back on my feet. It was a miracle. Without this important research, I would not have survived. The support of CANFAR saved my life and the lives of many others just like me.

I have been living with HIV for almost 30 years now, and while I am able to live a relatively healthy life, there are still complications that I face on a daily basis. There are many things that are still unknown about HIV and about the drugs used to treat it. I have suffered from kidney disease, liver damage, thinning of the bones, and accelerated aging. Recently, I almost died when my adrenal glands failed from a bad drug interaction.

My biggest fear, however, is developing AIDS-related dementia. A few years ago, I began to experience extreme memory loss and cognitive impairment, which affected my ability to carry on a conversation or hand write a letter. Of the 34 million people living with HIV today, about 50% of them will experience effects on the brain at some point. Canadian researchers are at the forefront in this field worldwide. Continued investment in research will result in treatments and medication that will address some of these hidden effects of HIV.

I was able to beat my two-year death sentence. It was CANFAR-funded research that saved my life, and it is research that will eventually provide a cure or vaccine to end AIDS.

Written by: Maggie Atkinson, O.Ont.