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Coming Out All Over Again

For the first time, Desert AIDS Project CEO David Brinkman speaks publicly about his very personal struggle with COVID-19

By Daniel Vaillancourt

Making good on its mission to provide holistic healthcare to every resident of the Coachella Valley, regardless of serostatus or ability to pay, Desert AIDS Project unveiled its new COVID-19 Triage Clinic on Monday, March 16. This, by the by, despite the fact that the pandemic will ultimately have a negative economic impact of some $2.5 million on DAP due to revenue lost from the cessation of routine visits and reduction of select services, the closure of all Revivals thrift stores, and the cancellation of annual fundraiser Dining Out For Life.

Among those so far tested for the novel coronavirus at DAP is the non-profit’s CEO, David Brinkman, whose result was positive. What follows is an edited transcript of our telephone conversation of Tuesday, April 7—nine days after his diagnosis. I was sequestered in my home office; he was quarantined in his.

(Full disclosure: For the last decade, I have scripted DAP’s annual benefit, February’s Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards. Following known exposure to multiple friends currently suffering from COVID-19, I, too was tested for the coronavirus at DAP. My result was negative.)

DAP CEO David Brinkman at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards
David Brinkman at the February 2020 Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Photo: Lani Garfield

Daniel Vaillancourt: First things first. How are you feeling?

David Brinkman: I’m fine. Each morning my energy increases a little bit over the day before. That’s the sign you’re on the mend, right? I’m much more concerned about DAP’s well-being.  

To my knowledge, you’re the first leader or public figure in the desert to come out about testing positive for the coronavirus. Why are you going on the record?

That’s probably the hardest question to answer. I initially thought I wouldn’t share this publicly. Our focus needs to be solely on supporting our healthcare workers on our front line, educating the community, and supporting its members. I first spoke to my physician husband, Will Grimm, then to my board chair and co-chair, Steve Kaufer and Patrick Jordan. It quickly became clear that by sharing my story, I could help our community and DAP win the war against this virus. So here I am, using this platform to educate, decrease fear, and inspire hope.

What led to your wanting to be tested?

Ever since the start of this crisis, all of us at DAP have been working a minimum of 12 hours a day. By Thursday, March 26, I couldn’t tell what was going on with my immune system, but I could tell it was being impacted. Was I manifesting symptoms of a cold because of exhaustion, or was it something else? On the morning of Friday, March 27, I called DAP’s COVID-19 hotline and was assessed over the phone. I didn’t want a test kit to be used on me unless it was absolutely necessary. After voicing my symptoms—especially my dry cough, the telltale sign of coronavirus infection—I was instructed to come in and be tested. I was administered nasopharyngeal and throat swabs, then told to quarantine. I headed straight back to my home office. DAP has been my focus every waking hour of the day since the pandemic began, so I had plenty of work to keep me busy.

No anxiety as you awaited the test result?

I was fortunate that by the time I was tested, the labs had caught up and increased productivity. I was told I’d have news within 48 hours to three days. Five days at the very worst. I got the call on the evening of Sunday, March 29—just a little more than 48 hours later. Honestly, from all the years of being tested for HIV and the memories of having to wait two weeks for those results back in the ’90s, this was nothing. So no, I wasn’t anxious at all. That said, in times of crisis, one of my roles at DAP is to be very visible, demonstrating a tone of leadership, certainty, calmness, and focus. I knew that if I tested positive, there was no way I could do that. It would change how I communicate with our employees.

Did you not have qualms about being tested at your place of employment?

That’s a legitimate question, but at DAP we’re so well-trained around issues of confidentiality and HIPAA laws to protect patient privacy. I knew the same standard would apply to me. Following my positive test result, per DAP’s policy, I notified our head of human resources. Had I been in close physical contact with another staff member while contagious, HR would have notified that person. But in my case, since we’d already been social distancing at work—or working remotely from home—for weeks, there was nobody to notify.

How did the disease progress post-diagnosis?

Interestingly, I never experienced fever. After I got my results back, the next phase of the virus was loss of taste and smell. Those symptoms lasted nine days. Just two days ago, I tasted sweetness again. Yesterday, I started to taste salt. By the middle of last week, the fatigue was getting more significant and problematic, because my average day—filled with phone calls, emails, and meetings via Zoom—is 12 hours long, at minimum. I’m someone who can usually function perfectly on two and a half to five hours of sleep a night. Since becoming sick, I’ve been sleeping nine hours a night solid, without opening an eye once, which I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Finally, there was a period where my lungs started to tighten. I never felt like I couldn’t breathe, but a week ago, each evening as the sun was setting, my breaths became belabored. It started low in my lungs and stayed there for five or six days. Thank goodness, last weekend it came to the top of my lungs and has started moving. Today, it’s loosened. I finally feel like I’m getting over it.

Being the leader of a healthcare organization providing services to the community during this pandemic, how has it been for you to access said services personally?

What comes to mind is not about my being tested and proving positive. It’s about reflecting upon all of us going through this pandemic together. I also reflect upon how our DAP founders were feeling when hundreds of thousands of young people were dying of AIDS in the early eighties. We all know that when fear grabs hold of you, it paralyzes you from finding creativity, power, and resourcefulness. This pandemic makes me think about our founders with a heightened level of respect, but also inquisitiveness about what moved them through their fear to a place that created the response Desert AIDS Project became. They were losing the loves of their lives, their very best friends. From talking to our surviving founders over the years—and seeing how quickly their eyes well up with tears—I know it was unconditional love for humanity that propelled them.

What would you like to leave our readers with?

I want to remind them that DAP has previously honored the great physicians Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx on our Steve Chase stage. Both of them said that DAP is a global model on how to respond to the AIDS crisis—our organization, in our small town. Given where these two experts are today—and what important roles they play in this current pandemic—I hope their great esteem of DAP and of our community encourages all of us to know that, together, we can prevent the spread of this pandemic here in the desert. We can prevent further loss of life. We have an amazing team of infectious disease specialists and heroic nurses providing stellar services. The uninsured are never turned away. That’s so special. We’re soon launching our first coronavirus-positive support group via Zoom. That’s so unique. Imagine the impact those first support groups for HIV-positive people had in 1983. We can show the world what a community of committed neighbors can do. Why? Because we’ve done it so successfully in the past.