Robb’s Life Chapter 44 – Three Brothers Meet One Last Time

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Three brothers in happier times — Robb is on the right.

By the first of April 1996, Robb’s family realized he could go at any time. His brother John flew in for a final visit. I went to Robb’s house one afternoon when John and Rich were there telling war stories of their childhood, each of them trying to deal with the knowledge that the end was near.

I took John and Rich to the backyard to do interviews about their feelings at this moment. They opened up in ways that would be educational to viewers in 1996, when anti-gay sentiments were high and the fear of AIDS was still strong.

Robb had been experiencing “strange feelings.” It was clear that his body was shutting down. By the time I interviewed him for this story, a couple of days later, his voice was growing weak. You can hear it in his comments near the end of the story.

Robb’s story changed a lot of hearts in the Quad Cities. During this year, people occasionally stopped him when they recognized him in public. One man, who he ran into at the grocery store, stuck his hand out to shake Robb’s hand. Robb was moved by the kindness.

It is so easy someone you don’t know. By putting his life on television, Robb helped people understand that those with AIDS and those who are gay are just as good, just as funny, just as brave as anyone.

The comments Robb makes in this story are from the last interview I did with him. He had a little more than two weeks to live, and I would not see him again when he was awake.


You can donate to the DeLaCerda House and help support homeless people who have HIV and AIDS. It was Robb’s favorite charity during the final months of his life. If you can donate, please go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 43 – The Secret about Robb We Kept from the Public

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Robb’s partner, Kevin, gives him a foot massage as the nurse prepares a morphine drip during Robb’s final weeks.

Robb Dussliere had a secret during the year that I documented his life with AIDS. I helped him keep the secret from the public.

Robb had a partner named Kevin. In our first meetings, as we discussed the documentary of his life, Robb asked me to keep Kevin’s name and image out of the series.

Kevin was in the Army National Guard, and in those days he could be discharged if he were “outed” as gay. Another factor was his family. Kevin’s parents did not accept his sexual orientation. He believed that they would not only feel anger but also humiliation if he were publicly identified, and he wanted to save them — and himself — from that sort of backlash.

As a journalist, this posed a dilemma, but I did not wrestle with it for long. The main story, after all, was Robb’s life with AIDS and his mission to educate the community on how to avoid the disease. In 1995, the concept of two men living together and being partners triggered a lot of anger. Kevin’s role in Robb’s life could distract from the more important message.

Last year, when this blog was launched to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Robb’s Life, I contacted Kevin, and we decided that for his parents’ sake, we would continue to conceal his complete identity and use only his first name.

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Nurse Pam explains the morphine delivery system to Kevin.

Through most of the series, Kevin was not around during the video shoots. He showed up in one story when Robb was renovating the shelter for homeless AIDS clients, but I shot Kevin from behind so his face was not visible. As Robb was dying (watch the video on Chapter 42 of this blog), you can see Kevin’s hand massaging Robb’s foot as Robb lay in pain, waiting for morphine. In that story, the nurse, Pam, is showing Kevin how to set the machine for Robb’s morphine drip.

I only saw Kevin once after Robb’s funeral, the day they dedicated “Robb’s House,” part of the DeLaCerda House. But during the past 20 years, I have wondered what was happening behind the scenes, if the brave young man on TV was going through emotional agony when the camera wasn’t rolling. Perhaps I wanted to be reassured that Robb had been as brave off-camera as he was when I was around. Kevin could answer those questions.

Kevin said he and Robb met at a euchre tournament hosted by JR’s, a local night club that catered to gays.

“We chatted a couple of times and he asked me out,” Kevin recalled. “I was 26.”

Robb told him on the first date that he was HIV-positive.

“I had just come out,” Kevin said. “He was the first person I had dated. I was scared. Here was a very nice guy, I’m looking for love, but he’s HIV-positive.”

Robb had been an executive in the company that owns the Village Inn restaurants. When the company discovered Robb was HIV-positive he was let go. Robb filed a lawsuit against the company that was settled out of court. By the time he met Kevin, Robb was living on welfare.

Despite the health issue, they embarked on a relationship that Kevin describes as “eye-opening,” a relationship that he credits with changing him forever.

“It may have saved my life,” Kevin said. “I learned so much through Robb. He helped me grow; helped me take charge of my own life.”

By the time they met, Robb had already lived for a decade with HIV. He had passed through the fear and anger, and he had seen what AIDS did to two of his previous partners. Robb had cared for them. He was well aware of the road ahead.

“When we met, Robb felt he was living on borrowed time already,” Kevin said. “He had such a positive outlook. He wasn’t scared. He was always able to give that sense of humor, and made others relax and get through it.”

Kevin admits that Robb’s humor may have been a coping mechanism, but it was not an act.

“His overall mood was never scared or down or worried,” Kevin said. “He was very straight-forward.”

I was very glad to hear Kevin say this. In the 20 years since Robb died, I have considered him the bravest person I ever met. His calm demeanor as his life was ending may have had an impact on me when I lost a lung and was near death in 2009. Since that time, I have lived with a shortened life expectancy, and Robb’s image has come to mind countless times. I have found that I, too, have a calmness about the possibility of dying, and when I have revisited┬áthe video of Robb discussing his illness in such an honest, fearless way, the feeling of a bond has grown stronger. So it was true — the Robb I saw through my camera lens was the real person.

Still, as Kevin and I both got a little emotional during our recent phone conversation, I felt bad for bringing up the memories and emotions and making him relive it. He put my mind at ease.

“I like talking about Robb,” Kevin said. “He was a happy, positive person. That’s my memory.”

Kevin remained HIV-negative. In the next couple of weeks, you will read a few more of his comments about Robb’s final days, but I am happy to report that Kevin found love again and is living very happily in Texas.

Robb Cracks Up 7-19-95I admitted to Kevin that I felt some guilt during the past two decades. During the taping of Robb’s Life, I was a single parent with two teenage daughters living at home, working as news director of a TV station, doing Robb’s Life as an “extra” activity beyond my normal work hours, and trying to maintain a social life, dating a woman I had become engaged to in February 1996. I never took the time to take Robb and Kevin out to dinner or to invite them to my house. Part of my reasoning at the time, besides being so busy, was the notion that as a journalist, even though I was emotionally involved in Robb’s story, I still needed to keep a slight bit of objectivity and detached professionalism. I felt that the rules of journalism dictated that I shouldn’t get too close.

By the time I realized Robb’s life was ending, and the opportunity to really be his friend was slipping away, Robb became too sick to leave the house. It left me with a regret that I have felt all these years.

Kevin responded to this admission by giving me a precious gift that left me in tears.

“It never came up,” he said. “Robb thought the world of you.”

Our conversation ended with Kevin saying that Robb embodied the old expression, “To know him is to love him.”

“Everyone who met him loved him,” Kevin said. “I was lucky enough to be the one he loved back. He was the most amazing person I have ever known — the most giving, most positive person I have ever known.”

Robb’s Life Chapter 42 — Managing Pain and Making Funeral Plans

Robb Funeral Plans 3-28-96-3Twenty years ago this week, Robb was running out of time, in terrible pain, and wanting to tie up a few loose ends while he was able to do so. Father Donald Levitt, who was at St. Mary’s in East Moline at the time, came to Robb’s house to plan the funeral service.

Robb was now in a hospital bed that replaced his couch in the living room.

At this same time, his pain grew intense, so the nurse showed how to use the system that delivered morphine, which boosted his spirits dramatically.

My favorite part of this episode has always been when Robb smiled at the camera and said, “Morphine is my friend.” It was great to see him smile after being in terrible pain.

Robb had not eaten anything in a week. Morphine was managing the pain. He was settling in for the end.

All this time, since April 1995, I had helped Robb keep a secret. It is a request he made as we began shooting this series. There are a couple of visual hints in this story if you are paying attention. In a couple of days, I will reveal the part of Robb’s Life that we kept from the public.

You can help support Robb’s legacy and help homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities by donating to the DeLaCerda House. Just go to their website at www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 41 – A Visit from Brother Jim

By the third week of March, 1996, Robb’s condition was deteriorating fast. The family was alarmed. Robb’s brother Jim arrived from California for a visit and the family got together at Lorney and Hattie’s house for a reunion.

It was difficult seeing Robb on the couch, hardly moving, not smiling, so different than he had been a few weeks ago. He managed to cuddle his new niece, Allison, the daughter of Robb’s brother Rich and his wife, Angie.

Robb also managed to sit up for a while and flash me a goofy grin.

You can keep Robb’s legacy alive by donating to the DeLaCerda House, a nonprofit providing housing and support to homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities. Just go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 40 -Two Men on Separate Journeys as Robb Decides the Fight is Over

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Robb is sedated, but when he wakes up and sees me he grins, waves, and says “Howdy.”

Has something ever happened in your life that made you stop and realize you had achieved some personal growth — that you had changed over time without realizing it? It happened to me 20 years ago today – on March 13, 1996, when I visited Robb in the hospital.

Robb checked into Genesis because of severe headaches and a continued inability to keep food down. When I arrived, his sister Peggy was there, keeping him company.

After she left, before his parents arrived, Robb and I were alone. I interviewed him, and that is when he told me he was no longer going to fight with AIDS. The disease had won. The fight was over. Now, the mission was to remain comfortable.

He was telling me this and had to stop to vomit into a container — I think they call them “kidney dishes.” I turned my head. I didn’t want Robb to be uncomfortable, and I hate throwing up worse than almost anything, so it was tough seeing him go through it.

After he threw up into the container, I took it from him and started to carry it into the restroom to wash it out.

“You don’t have to do that,” Robb said. “The nurse will do it.”

But I told him that was okay. I went into the restroom and poured the contents into the toilet. I felt strangely clinical, not squeamish or repulsed as I would have expected. As I was pouring it out, the realization struck me — my education was complete.

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Robb eating dinner next to me in his home 11 months earlier in April 1995.

Eleven months earlier, one of the first stories I shot with Robb involved him cooking dinner, and when he asked me to join him, I froze, thinking that perhaps I would catch HIV if I ate with one of his forks. At the time, I told myself to shut up, and I forced myself to eat with him, but it was not easy. On that evening in April 1995, I had only seen Robb three or four times. Now, after all we had done together since then, I didn’t even hesitate to take the dish he had vomited in — with my bare hands — to empty it, unafraid.

Knowledge is a powerful thing. It chases ignorance, fear and intolerance away. I washed out the tray and took it back into the room. At that moment, I focused on Robb and the story I had to shoot, but later, I spent some time contemplating the changes Robb had been guiding me through in a very quiet way.

From April 1995 to April 1996, during the year we spent together, Robb went on an amazing journey, but he was not the only one. I believe that every person in his life was changed by the experience of knowing him, and watching the brave way he faced his illness and his death.

The video I was shooting represented my own journey. I would never again fear AIDS, and I would never again be able to dislike anyone because they had a different sexual orientation. You can take the boy out of the intolerant South, but you can also take the intolerant South out of the boy. All it takes is the knowledge that human experience provides. This was Robb’s gift to me, and he did it just by living his life, with me on the other side of the camera.

The story you see on TV is not always the complete story, and that’s the way it was on March 13, 1996 — the day Robb Dussliere decided not to fight AIDS anymore.

If you would like to keep Robb’s legacy alive and support men and women who are homeless while fighting HIV and AIDS, please go to the DeLaCerda House’s website — at www.delacerdahouseinc.org — and click the Donate button.

Robb’s Life Chapter 39 -A CT Scan and Suspicions of Wasting Syndrome

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Robb suspects wasting syndrome, but gets a CT scan to rule out Kaposi’s.

In early March, 1996, Robb suspected he had wasting syndrome, which happens when the body begins shutting down. But to rule out Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer that is common in AIDS patients, he went to Genesis Medical Center for a CT scan.

Robb had been having trouble breathing, especially while lying down. He looked very thin and was continuing to lose weight, but he maintained a realistic perspective. He wanted to know exactly what was happening, staring good and bad news in the eye without blinking. He knew so much about AIDS that he seemed to view his own illness in a clinical way.

As the end approached, Robb was teaching me about courage in a way that I may not have thought deeply about at the time, but as the years have passed, I have been amazed at how calm and centered he remained through it all.

If you would like to keep Robb’s legacy alive and support men and women who are homeless while fighting HIV and AIDS, please go to the DeLaCerda House’s website — at www.delacerdahouseinc.org — and click the Donate button.

Robb’s Life Chapter 38 -A Checkup at the Doctor’s Office

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Robb made everyone laugh, and he thought the world of nurse Sandee Millage.

By the end of February 1996, Robb had lost six pounds in a little over a week, so he went to Dr. Katz’ office. Dr. Katz wasn’t in, but his nurse Sandee Millage was there to see him.

Robb’s fatigue was worse and he was visibly going downhill. His mother, Hattie drove him to the doctor’s office at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport, across the river from his house in Rock Island, Illinois.

Despite feeling badly, the opening shot in this story still makes me smile. I was carrying the heavy camera gear and walking backward down the hall, so Robb began clowning around, motioning people behind me to look out. I remember squinting with one eye through the viewfinder and trying not to laugh.

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The twinkle in Robb’s eyes was replaced with concern.

Robb was able to smile and joke a little bit during his checkup, but there is one moment in particular, when he looks up at Sandee when she takes a blood sample, that the illness is mirrored in his eyes. The haunting “sick” look is so different than the twinkle he had in his eyes 10 months earlier, when the series began.