AIDS Memorial Quilt displays coming to Lawrence; area residents affected by disease share stories

photo by: Nick Krug

Lied Center employee Mitchell Eifler walks past a 12-by-12-foot section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt during the installation process of four sections Tuesday at the Lied Center. Many of the panels on display were created by family members of local residents who have lost their lives to the disease. Of the six sections that will be on display in Lawrence until June 30, four will be at the Lied Center and two additional panels will be at the Lawrence Public Library.

Kenny Comstock was a talented dancer, with the resume to back it up.

His experience included time at the Gus Giordano dance troupe in Chicago and a one-year scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet; his true loves were modern and jazz dance.

“Kenny was funny, he was smart, he was talented and beautiful, and the baby of the family, and the only boy, and everybody just loved him,” said his sister Laurie Comstock, director of special projects with Kansas University Endowment.

Kenny was 26 years old in 1988 when AIDS prevented his recovery from pneumonia. He spent his final days in a Chicago hospital surrounded by family members who slowly pieced together what was happening.

“Our whole family was close, but that doesn’t mean we always talked about everything that we should have,” Laurie said. “… No one really said AIDS for a while, so it took a while for everybody to really understand what was going on.”

Kenny is one of more than 94,000 individuals whose lives are commemorated in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a 54-ton handmade tapestry. Every panel, made by family or friends of the deceased, represents the story of a life lost to the disease.

Starting this week, Kenny’s panel, a black-and-gold rectangle that features an image of him in a dance leap, will be one of several on display at the Lied Center and the Lawrence Public Library.

photo by: Nick Krug

A panel in the AIDS quilt, lower left, celebrates the life of dancer Kenny Comstock.

Six 12-by-12 foot sections of the quilt — four at the Lied Center, two at the library — will be displayed through June 30. This is the first time in nearly a decade the quilt has been on view in Lawrence, according to a news release from the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

Laurie is looking forward to seeing her brother’s memorial again this week. She said her family was lucky to have Kenny and sad that he is gone “but happy that maybe his square, his panel, is out there for other people to see and maybe try to imagine him.”

The LDCHD is hosting a kickoff event from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive. It will include a panel about working with patients affected by HIV/AIDS; a viewing of “The Last One: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt,” a documentary about how stigma and discrimination have exacerbated the disease; a viewing of the quilt, and refreshments.

The keynote speaker for the event, Bret Turner, is an education outreach volunteer with Positive Connections, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Topeka. Turner has been HIV-positive for 25 years and will be turning 50 in about a month.

“I’m calling it my 50/50 since I’ll be 50 and I will have been HIV positive for half of that time,” he said. “… Frequently, a good attitude really helps.”

His talk will center on the theme of progress. He said HIV is not so much the death sentence that it was 35 years ago when it was first discovered.

Free HIV testing in June

According to the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, nearly 68 percent of adults in Douglas County report that they’ve never had an HIV test. There will be several opportunities for free HIV testing this month. The first two are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 17, and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 24, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

On June 27, National HIV Testing Day, free tests will be available from 10 a.m. to noon at the Lawrence Community Shelter, 3701 Franklin Park Circle; 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Just Food, 1000 E. 11th St.; and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the library.

The LDCHD also offers HIV counseling and testing at its clinic, 200 Maine St. To make an appointment, call 785-843-0721.

More information about the AIDS Memorial Quilt is available online at

As one example, Turner said medications have gotten easier to take. One drug, AZT, was eight pills taken three times daily. Now it’s one pill, twice a day.

“It’s much easier to be able to take those medications and stay on the regimen, which is what will keep you healthier longer,” he said.

However, he said some people have a perception that if HIV is treatable, it isn’t that bad and they don’t actively avoid it. Treatment has come a long way, but it is not a cure. He said many medications can have short- and long-term side effects, ranging from headaches or nausea to diabetes or nerve damage.

“Because HIV has no symptoms but affects all aspects of your health, it will almost invisibly affect everything in your life,” Turner said.

That includes your social life, as well. Turner said he’s been single for a long time, because even when he may find someone who understands that they can stay HIV-negative even with an HIV-positive partner, once they realize he’s been HIV-positive for 25 years, they assume he’s “on the cusp of something that’s going to be catastrophic, which is still not true,” he said.

Turner said there was “a lot of misinformation out there” when he contracted HIV, and he wants to help stop the spread of the virus by sharing correct information with others.

“A lot of times the people that do catch HIV were just never even aware that that’s a way that HIV can be contracted,” he said.

According to the LDCHD, the virus is most often spread through unprotected sex, blood-contaminated needles or syringes shared by HIV-positive drug abusers, infected blood or blood products, and from HIV-positive women to their babies at birth or through breastfeeding.

Turner is eager to answer questions as part of the panel on Thursday. Representatives from Positive Connections, LDCHD and Watkins Health Services at KU will join him.

“There’s never a stupid question,” Turner said. “The only stupid ones are the ones that you don’t ask and you just leave unanswered. The information is out there, and conversations need to be started.”