How Dogs Can Transform The Lives Of People With HIV And AIDS

"I wasn't sure peace and joy were ever going to be possible again."

In 2010, Dr. Robert Garofalo, an adolescent medicine specialist who has dedicated his career to treating HIV-positive kids, found out he was HIV-positive, too.

"I was in a really dark place in my life," said Garofalo, who now heads the adolescent medicine division at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago and is the founder of Fred Says, a non-profit that raises money on behalf of HIV-positive teens.

Garofalo had already received a cancer diagnosis and suffered a difficult breakup with a longterm partner and an assault on the street, he told HuffPost. "I was acting out, taking bad care of myself, wasn't able to make good decisions for me and my health," he said.

A year after his HIV diagnosis, Garofalo said he did "the most selfish thing I have ever done" and brought home a little Yorkie he named Fred. At a time when he could barely take care of himself, Garofalo said his friends openly wondered how he'd be able to care for another life.

They didn't have to worry. Instead of adding a burden to an overloaded schedule, Fred gave Garofalo a new chance at life.

Dr. Robert Garofalo and Fred.
Dr. Robert Garofalo and Fred.

"I wasn't sure peace and joy were ever going to be possible again," Garofalo said. "Fred brought them back to my life -- an ability to laugh that I thought was gone forever. And he doesn't even know it, he's just sitting here letting me rub his belly."

Garofalo and Fred's story is special, but it's not unique. Research shows dogs really do have healing powers, including the ability to lower our stress levels, decrease our cholesterol levels and cut the number of visits we make to the doctor each year. While there isn't specific research about the benefits of dog ownership for those living with HIV, anecdotally, dogs can help with things like self-esteem and even medical adherence.

Award-winning photographer Jesse Freidin has captured these healing powers of dogs. He's focused mainly on the human-animal bond and has dedicated the past two years to photographing dog owners living with HIV for "When Dogs Heal," a project that's part of Garofalo's charity efforts.

"[I wanted to] tell a story about HIV that hasn't been told before," Freidin said, explaining this side of the story is about "joy, love and survival" rather than stigma and marginalization.

“The only way we can changed peoples' minds and ... have a contemporary understanding of this illness is to tell a new story about it.”

"My goal as an artist is to reinterpret how we view HIV," Freidin added. "To move away from the stigma and the blame and the fear and all of these things -- they're so outdated. The only way we can changed peoples' minds and talk about survival and have a contemporary understanding of this illness is to tell a new story about it."

So far, Freidin has photographed about 30 people with HIV whose lives have been changed by their dogs. "It has been a real challenge to get people to come out for the shoot," he said. "We've had a lot of interest, but we want people who are ready and willing to tell their story. It takes a person who is out about their status and open to talk about some dark moment in their lives."

"When Dogs Heal," which is partially funded by Fred Says, is set for an opening reception on Tuesday, Dec. 1 in Chicago and another in New York City on Thursday, Dec. 3. The project is entirely donation-based, and all money raised goes directly to funding healthcare for HIV-positive teens and the continuation of the photo series. You can learn more about and donate to the cause at View five stories from the ongoing project below.

Brad and Thor, San Francisco
Jesse Freidin
Before Thor, I was terrible at taking my HIV meds. I was partying every night. Living wild. I was dealing. I really didn’t care about anything. And I didn’t want to take on the responsibility to change my lifestyle, which was slowly killing me.

One day a friend of mine asked me to help find a home for this dog named Thor.

His previous owner had been arrested numerous times for selling drugs and had moved to the projects. While there his old owner would let his new roommates use Thor in dogfights in order to get free drugs. When I met him he was healing from a recent stab wound.

I didn’t plan on keeping him, but once he came into my house and laid on his back to let me rub his belly I could tell that he felt immediately comfortable with me. He stayed with me for weeks while I searched for a home for him while we grew closer and closer. One day I realized I had found a home for him already: mine.

When I realized I was going to keep him I knew I had to get better and change my life. Not just for me, but because Thor deserved to be in a stable home.

His previous owner was also a drug dealer like me and had been busted, causing him to be homeless and not be able to take care of Thor. I realized that if I was going to have Thor I needed to do it in a way that didn’t leave any chance for him being uprooted again. So the first thing I did was stop dealing.

From there I also realized I needed to not stay out late any more so I could be home to take care of him and do lots of other changes if I planned to keep him in my life. These adjustments made it safe and healthy for Thor to be around. I in turn become healthier and safer in my own life. And I got clean, and stayed clean.

If I hadn’t had met Thor, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have lasted this long. All my friends are gone. None of them passed their thirties besides me and I partied a lot harder than they did. But I somehow made it.

So for me to still be here today doesn’t make a lot of sense when I think about it. The only way I do make sense of it is by looking at Thor and knowing that without him I wouldn’t be alive. And without me he wouldn’t either.

Because we healed one another.

-- as told to Zach Stafford of When Dogs Heal
Paulo and Stud, Chicago
jesse freidin
Weeks after being displaced from New Orleans due to Katrina, I was 17 and walking home in Chicago when I met two men who changed my life forever.

After talking with them for a few minutes, they pulled me into a nearby alleyway and started roughing me around. They kept yelling at me that they were going to give me AIDS. Eventually they pulled my pants down and they raped me.

While it was happening, all I could hear were those words over and over, rattling around in my head: “We’re gonna give you AIDS! We’re gonna give you AIDS!”

I tested positive a few weeks later.

The only way I knew how to cope with this was denial. This led to a major downward spiral and breakdown. For over tens years, I battled different addictions, major health issues and the death of a close friend. But most of all I battled meth, which became the cure and the cause for everything good and bad in my life.

It was a dark time, to say the least.

After a decade, I fell into a deep depression while dealing with a relationship that went south. I decided I needed to do something to help myself get better, because for the first time I was starting to feel like I didn’t want to wake up anymore.

I needed someone or something to hold me accountable for my life and my responsibilities, and to remind me to travel lightly — to carry as little emotional baggage as possible. I had a dog earlier in my life who was a big help in dark moments of my life. I thought of her and thought maybe another dog could help me now.

While searching for dogs, I came across the French bulldog, which is described as “a clown in the cloak of a philosopher.” Immediately, I thought this was so perfect for me and described how I had felt my entire life! I had just never been able to put it into words.

Between growing up in a southern household where I was the rebel, the black sheep, and the colorful son (as my mom used to call me) my life seemed to have gone from one tragedy to the next. But I kept pushing forward. These words describing the French bulldog stuck with me.

Stud is from a breeder in Kentucky, and when I met him I immediately felt myself become lighter. From the moment I brought him home, I started to see my life change for the better.

He would wake me up each morning to take him out with him waking me up on a routine; he gave a consistency to my schedule, and I began to get better at taking my medication, which made me begin to feel better as a whole.

Stud’s love for me doesn’t expire. Before our morning walks to the park, I would actually get dressed and put myself together to go outside. He keeps me present and that helps alleviate the social anxiety I had acquired. Once we were out, people always stop and want to talk to him, and knowing that motivated me to present myself better, which started to make me feel better, and my confidence grew.

In our time together, the most important way Stud has helped me is by raising my self-esteem, which had been very low since my last relationship ended. He has given me my confidence back.

Without him by my side, I wouldn’t have had the strength to keep going.

He’s an amazing dog. Being a dad ensures my continued purpose in life as I am a lot less reckless and self-deprecating. I couldn’t have passed up this opportunity of sharing our story. He truly saved my life, and I hope that this story will bring someone hope.

-- as told to Zach Stafford of When Dogs Heal
Sharon and Dulk, Los Angeles
Jesse Freidin
It wasn’t nice the way the doctor told me I was positive.

For weeks, I had been really sick – like really sick – I thought I had a just had a bad cold and this bad cough. And while I was traveling to Santa Barbara in 1996 to surprise my mother on Mother’s Day the cough got worse.

When I arrived to the west coast, my mother was immediately worried: I was 98 pounds and I couldn’t stop coughing. She took me straight to the emergency room.

After being admitted I was immediately put into intensive care unit and they let my family hang out with me while they ran tests. After some time the doctor finally came to the door and just blurted out “You have AIDS and you have six months to live and need to get priorities in order." He said there was nothing else they could do and my entire family burst into tears.

I just sat there.

When they released me days later, I started to lose everything: my house, my car, my job in Washington, because to hear those words “you are going to die in six months.” I thought it was the end so I couldn’t muster the strength to do anything.

And when you do nothing, you have nothing.

Those first months, I didn’t know how to handle it. My family didn’t know what to do, especially my 6-year-old son. So I just cried in the dark for months and months.

After about six months my mom came into the room and said "You have a son out here. You need to make up your mind and figure out if you’re going to lay here and die like the doctor says you can’t do it here. You need to get up and brush yourself off and get it done."

It took a couple days to get the words to sink in, but eventually I chose not to die at all.

After some time and starting treatment, I began to get healthier, but I still felt like I was in the dark room I had spent months crying in. For many years the isolation of being HIV-positive was just so much even as I began to see I was getting better.

So my sister one day about three years ago went to a shelter and got Dulk for me and immediately he became what I and my health had needed all this time: a companion.

Most people don’t know I am HIV-positive, unless I do a talk at a school or something. It’s something I have kept pretty quiet since 1996. So over these past years, he has been the sole friend to me that I haven’t felt like I had to keep who I am fully from him, because he just wants to love and be loved in return.

He will watch TV. He will lay with me and put his head on my lap when he knows I am not feeling good. He is my constant companion. And most of all: he has become my best friend.

Today it’s still lonely at times, and I don’t know if that will ever go away, because it’s hard to find someone who will accept you with you due to the stigma that accompanies being HIV positive.

But I am hopeful. And I have Dulk.

-- as told to Zach Stafford of When Dogs Heal
Steven and Hope, San Francisco
jesse freidin
About 10 years ago, I was at the vet taking my boxer, Buster Brown, to be put down because he had an inoperable liver tumor. While I was in the waiting room, a woman came in with a pregnant boxer in labor, about to deliver, but whose contractions had stopped.

The vet, a friend of mine, needed to perform an emergency C-section to save the eleven puppies in the mother's womb, but she was tremendously understaffed.

“Everybody! Watch what I am doing. I need help! There's just too many,” she yelled and handed me a set of gloves. “Steven, you're up first.”

And that is how I came to meet Hope.

Buster Brown was sitting close by and watched me as I birthed her. Everyone in the room was in tears. Shortly thereafter I had to put down my beloved Buster Brown. Everyone involved was sure that this was a universal sign or cycle of life and that I should adopt the puppy I had birthed. But I just wasn't ready, I couldn't commit.

Only a year prior, I had lost my life partner to liver cancer. Buster Brown had been such a huge support for me. He had truly become my best friend. I couldn't imagine replacing him with another dog. Somehow, some way, seven weeks later I decided to take the newborn pup.


Death had swirled around my life for years.

After being diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980s, my health was up and down until just recently.

In 2005, I was diagnosed with an HIV-related cancer. The tumor was surgically removed but no further treatment followed. Shortly after taking in my new puppy, the cancer came back. This time I had to endure chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation.

Without my partner by my side, it was extremely frightening and isolating to face this again. But Hope changed that. Once I realized the deep connection we were establishing, I no longer felt so alone. She gave me hope, thus her name.

From the very beginning, Hope knew I was sick. She was cautious, protective, and even as a puppy, she would lie on my bed keeping watch every day after I would return from the rounds of radiation therapy.

One day in particular I was feeling so nauseous, I locked her out of my bedroom and put my headphones on to drown out distractions and try to meditate. Hope was so anxious she chewed a hole in the door trying to get to me.

There have been countless times throughout my battle with HIV and cancer when I thought I was going to give up, that my body would give out from under me. Having Hope to come home to made recovery feel within reach.

Today, I am healthier than I have been in years. I credit a lot of that to Hope! I can’t imagine life without her.

Because what is life if you don't have Hope?

-- as told to Zach Stafford of When Dogs Heal
Tremaine, Rockee Balboa and Madam Russia, New York City
Jesse Freidin
Before I got Rockee, my life was at its lowest point, and my HIV was spiraling out of control.

I was diagnosed a few years prior at the age of 17. Right off the bat, I hated the side effects of the meds so I quickly stopped taking them. My health got worse soon after. I got shingles. I got an opportunistic infection. I got really sick.

Looking back, I realize that choosing to go off meds wasn’t so much about the side effects, but rather about me not loving myself after learning I was positive. And my body showed it.

At the time, I was living in Atlanta with my mom who was also going through some shit, so my life felt like this constant state of negativity — until I met Rockee.

I remember that day: Looking in his eyes you could see his quiet strength, strength I really connected to and desperately needed in my life. When I took him home, I thought about all the stuff going on in my life and said to myself: If you can’t turn your life around for yourself, then you have to do it for him.That day he became my rock.

Soon after, we left Atlanta for New York — together. I felt like in Atlanta I couldn’t turn my life around, so I left. With Rockee by my side and giving me strength, I found my footing in New York City and all that negativity began to fade away. Room for positive things became available in my life and that’s when we met Madam Russia.

Even though Rockee and I were doing fine on our own, I knew he needed a companion too.

Thinking about all of this now, I honestly don’t know what life would be without him. I don’t know if I would have ever left Atlanta. And ultimately, I don’t know if I would have ever learned to start loving myself.

Today loving myself looks like taking medication to make sure that my immune system is at its best. Loving myself entails me surrounding myself with people and environments that motivate and challenge me to be the best I can be.

And I know I have all that, I have my life back because of my rock, my Rockee.

-- as told to Zach Stafford of When Dogs Heal

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