Dell’Abate shares his brother’s story to educate students on World AIDS Day

Usually when teenagers hear Gary Dell’Abate speak in the mornings they’re doing a lot of laughing.

But the message that Mr. Dell’Abate, the longtime producer of The Howard Stern Show known infamously as “Bababooey,” had for students at Greenwich High School Thursday was completely serious. To mark World AIDS Day, Mr. Dell’Abate spoke to more than 300 students in the GHS auditorium in a presentation put together by the Greenwich-based Red Ribbon Foundation, which raises money to fight the disease, and the message he brought with him was a very personal one.

Mr. Dell’Abate is not just someone who has spent decades working to raise awareness and money to fight for a cure for AIDS, he’s someone the disease has touched personally. In speaking to the students last week, Mr. Dell’Abate talked about his brother Steven, who died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 34. He said he wasn’t there to lecture or scare any of the teenagers in his audience, just talk about the realities of the disease by sharing his brother’s story and discussing what it was like when AIDS first became an issue in the United States, years before the current crop of GHS students were even born.

“People were dying at an alarming rate and that’s something you kids have never experienced,” Mr. Dell’Abate said. “I was working in the entertainment industry and this was a disease that hit us very hard. It seemed like every two or three weeks someone would pass away. You would call a publicist or a manager and they just wouldn’t be there anymore. It was pretty unbelievable and we didn’t know what the disease was and how you got it. I remember a gentleman I worked with and he had a cough but he seemed fine. He had a Halloween party and we all went to it and he was a little bit sick but seemed fine and he was dead by Thanksgiving. We couldn’t believe it.

No one knew what was wrong with him and there was a lot of ignorance at that time. We were sad he died but more than that we were petrified. Could you get it by being in the same room as him and breathing the same air? Could you get it from taking a sip of a soda he’d been drinking or taking a drag of a cigarette he’d been smoking? Nobody knew and there was this immediate stigma against the disease and the gay community.”

But it was what happened to his brother that really galvanized Mr. Dell’Abate to get involved. When he heard his brother was HIV-positive, Mr. Dell’Abate said it was “probably one of the most difficult pieces of news” he had ever gotten in his life. Over the next years, Mr. Dell’Abate had to watch his brother slowly waste away physically and mentally and die “one day at a time.” He told the GHS students about the struggles to get him decent medical care, as many in the medical community then were ignorant about the disease. All the while he looked for cures for AIDS as he investigated ideas like massive amounts of Vitamin C or total blood transfusions that were nothing more than bad science or scams.

“There was so much fear about this disease and so much animosity toward the gay community,” Mr. Dell’Abate recalled. “I had gotten a bunch of pamphlets from the doctor with the Vitamin C idea and I was reading them on the subway trying to educate myself and a bunch of girls got on board. They had just gotten out of private school and had their uniforms on. As I was reading, one of the girls was looking over my shoulder and she stared at me right in the eye and then screamed out to the entire train ‘He’s got AIDS!’ Everybody stopped in their tracks and they looked at me with pity and anger and most people were scared out of their minds thinking they were in a subway car with a guy with AIDS. It was an amazing moment for me because I really got to understand and feel what people with the disease and even gay people without the disease were feeling.”

In detailing his brother’s deterioration from the disease, Mr. Dell’Abate stressed that he wasn’t trying to scare anyone but instead discuss the realities of what happens when you get AIDS. To honor his brother’s memory Mr. Dell’Abate has gotten involved not only with organizations like the Red Ribbon Foundation but also as president of Lifebeat, which goes on tour with major acts as varied as Madonna and Rihanna and Ozzy Osbourne to provide education and even condoms to people to make sure they are aware of the dangers of AIDS and how it can be prevented.

Mr. Dell’Abate said this is all very important for young people to hear and it ties in with lessons about drugs and alcohol, because those can lead to unsafe actions. He said there were so many stories he had heard of people with AIDS who typically wore or had their partners wear condoms but got too drunk to use them just once and now have the disease. He noted that abstinence is the only surefire way to avoid contracting the disease through sex, but people who don’t practice that “really have to think” and be careful.

“You need to be informed and educated,” Mr. Dell’Abate said. “There is no cure for AIDS. The difference between now and my brother’s time is that the disease can be managed and you can live with it. But I promise you, you do not want to live with it. It means taking a ridiculous amount of pills every day and altering your lifestyle. There are a lot of diseases where you can take a pill and it goes away. This is not one of them. You need to know what you’re up against.”

World AIDS Day was formally marked on Dec. 1, with many stressing the need for continued education about the disease. Mr. Dell’Abate’s speech was organized by two GHS seniors, Weronika Filarska and Megan Mahoney, who are part of the Red Ribbon Foundation’s Youth Council. They shared some sobering statistics with their classmates about the disease, as it is estimated that 33 million people have HIV globally and that between 1981 and 2007 more than 30 million have died from the virus, “making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.”

One concern raised was that because AIDS has become so accepted as a reality and because scientific advancement means the virus isn’t the instant death sentence it once was, people have become less concerned with protecting themselves against it. Weronika and Megan said their survey of students showed that far too many of them believed there was a vaccine for AIDS, when in fact one doesn’t exist, just more effective forms of treatment.

“Hearing personal stories can make a big difference,” Weronika said. “It’s an issue that’s perceived these days as something in Africa, and this can show it’s more local and that people need to be educated.”

Nicole Hazard, executive director of the Red Ribbon Foundation, told the Post that she agreed.

“There are fewer and fewer voices dedicated to providing awareness to youth about HIV/AIDS,” Ms. Hazard said. “To be able to get to a high school with such a large student body is important to our goal of educating youth.”

 

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