Man diagnosed with HIV aged 17 shares emotional reunion with counsellor that helped save him, 30 years on
A new BBC series, Saved by a Stranger, follows a man as he reunites with the counsellor who helped him “push back” after receiving a HIV diagnosis as a teenager in the ’80s.
Woman’s Hour presenter Anita Rani helped Marc Thompson, 51 from London, reunite with the counsellor who helped him after he learned he was living with HIV in 1986 for new BBC Two series, Saved by a Stranger.
At the time Thompson, who is gay, was only 17 years old, and HIV was demonised by the wider public. He remembered feeling just “numb” when he got the diagnosis.
“I spent a lot of my teenage years thinking about death and dying and illness, and you can’t talk to anybody,” Thompson said.
At the time he felt like he was the “only young, Black, gay man” that existed. He explains in the show being plagued by feelings of loneliness at an “extremely frightening time where everywhere you looked was a horror show” for the LGBT+ community in the UK.
It was his sessions with John Shanks – who volunteered at The Landmark, a centre in south London for people living with AIDS and HIV – that gave him the ability to “push back” and continue during this terrifying period.
“I remember talking to John and saying it feels like there’s a wall in front of me, and I know there’s something over that wall that means everything will be OK but I cannot get over the wall,” Thompson said.
“I want to say to him that I got over the wall – I didn’t get over it; I knocked that wall down – and what was on the other side was incredible, amazing and beautiful.”
The investigation later uncovered that Shanks worked as the director of public health in Croydon, and the show was able to get in touch with him through his former colleagues. The two men embrace in an emotional reunion where Shanks admitted he never thought he would have met Thompson ever again.
Thompson shared that it’s been “28 years” since the pair last saw each other. Shanks replied that there was “about nobody else left” from when he worked at The Landmark.
“We survived, and I’m so grateful to you,” Thompson said through tears.
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Shanks remembered Thompson as being a teenager who was “full of ideas”, and he “felt very confident” that the young man would be OK. He explained that he volunteered at The Landmark because he felt like the period was like a “war”, and “everybody’s got to do something”.
“I was working in mental health, and I thought that’s what I know maybe I can do something with that,” Shanks explained. “I was never sure if it made any difference.”
Thompson’s story is just one story told in Saved By a Stranger. The series, which premieres on Thursday (29 April) on BBC Two, reunites people with the strangers who helped them through major life events.
Throughout Thomson and Shanks’ episode, which airs on 6 May, Rani also explored the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS during the 80s in the UK. She viewed horrific headlines from newspapers at the time that called gay people to be gassed, and detailing Sir James Anderton, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, who said in 1987 that people with AIDS were “swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making”.
According to The Observer, he also advocated for the reintroduction of corporal punishment to make gay people “repent of their sins”.