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Frisco Resident Explains Challenges of AIDS to Middle School Students(January, 2008)

Glenn Kopanski and Rosemarie OdomRetired Navy Veteran Glenn Kopanski of Frisco was willing to give his life for his country and in some ways he has, but he didn’t expect it to be such a long process and he thought it would be in a military battle – not battling a disease.

 Glenn Kopanski has spent the last 25 years of his life dying and living with AIDS contracted through a blood transfusion. He says he hopes that sharing his story with Frisco’s young people may help save a life one day.

Kopanski, who lives in Frisco, visited Griffin Middle School on January 8, to explain to students about AIDS and share his story. He is the 18th longest surviving AIDS patient in the U.S. and the longest surviving AIDS patient among American Military Veterans.

Kopanksi was a young man in the Navy when he was assigned to go ashore and help out the Marines with some guard duty in Beirut in 1983. He was severely wounded in a bombing. In the midst of being treated for his injuries a doctor advised him that he needed a tonsillectomy. He had suffered from strep throats and sore throats since childhood. It was during that simple surgery that an artery was nicked and he had to have transfusions. One of the units of blood he received was doubly tainted – with AIDS and Hepatitis C, both fatal diseases. Many people received tainted blood at the same time Kopanski did, including two grandmothers, he said. Today’s blood supply is tested and monitored for AIDS but in the 1980s tainted blood supply was a new problem.

Kopanski remained in the Navy, retiring with 20 years at the age of 37. But his fight with AIDS has been full of adventure. By his count he has almost died six times. He developed a life-threatening spinal virus that left him in a coma for three months and caused him to be unable to walk for a long time. He suffered a seizure that caused him to fracture his skull and have a concussion. He takes more than 60 pills a day and spent several years on IV chemotherapy. He is currently suffering mysterious swelling in one of his legs that doctors are investigating. He was most recently hospitalized over the holidays.

In the midst of this battle to stay alive, Kopsanski has suffered personal disappointments. When diagnosed with AIDS, his fiancé broke up with him because she questioned how he got the disease. “At that time it was seen as a gay disease,” Kopanski told the students. “AIDS hits all people, it is hitting the whole planet. There are 12-year-old kids getting AIDS.”  Kopanski has also had to deal with strangers questioning his lifestyle and accusing him of using drugs, he said. “I had a neighbor in Lewisville put up picket signs between our houses saying “No AIDS on My Lawn.” Kopanski urged students to always treat AIDS patients respectfully. He also told them that young people between the age of 12 and 25 make up the highest number of new AIDS cases in Collin and Denton Counties.

“You won’t get AIDS from a blood transfusion like I did, the blood system is safe now,” he said, adding that people do need to know the person they date very well.  He cautioned students that sexual relationships can put them at risk.

To be certain there is no risk of infecting another person,  Kopanski has chosen to live a celibate life. He also told them that he personally risks catching something serious from each of them when he goes out to a school, but that he considers it a risk worth taking.

Kopanski was accompanied by a friend, Rosemarie Odom, of Frisco. Rosemarie explained the AIDS Quilt Project to the students and showed them a new quilt panel that honors a young man named Dennis Adams who died in 2004. She explained how loved ones of AIDS victims keep awareness of the disease alive after their friends and loved ones die. Kopanski caught his friend off guard by asking her then and there if she would make his quilt panel. Surprised, Odom quipped that she doesn’t let herself think about Kopanski being gone – but then she answered that she would make his panel when the time comes.

Kopanski lives in Frisco and sees his visits to young people as his mission in life. “I’m retired, I can’t go back into the work force, I consider this my job.”

The students asked Kopanski several questions about all the medicines he takes and one student asked him if he ever thought about dying.

“I’ve had to accept the idea that I was going to die, so that I could go on with my life and live,” said Kopanski, age 50, surrounded by his pill bottles and his walking cane. He looked at the young students and urged them all to value their own lives. “Just love life.”

Kopanski has visited Griffin and Clark Middle Schools this month.