Facing the Sunset

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS CAREER, DR. Steve Kritsick was a veterinarian whose human following far outnumbered his nonhuman patients. Bounding from channel to channel with energy and relaxed humor, he did animal and pet segments on Good Morning America from 1982 through this year and did similar stints on CNN, Romper Room and PBS. He wrote two well-received books, Creature Comforts: The Adventures of a City Vet and Dr. Kritsick's Tender Loving Cat Care. And he treated the pets of such celebrities as Jackie Onassis, Roberta Flack and Andy Warhol, who is said to have observed, "Not only is he a wonderful vet, but he's the best-looking man in the world."

It was a far different Dr. Steve Kritsick who surfaced on a heartbreaking GMA segment Oct. 29. Viewers were stunned as Kritsick, 42, who hadn't been on the show for several months, announced that he was gay and sick with AIDS-related lymphoma. He was skeletally gaunt, and bald from chemotherapy. A segment showed Kritsick, summoning as much of the old vigor as he could, receiving treatment at a Boston hospital with the support of his family: his parents, Leo, a retired ad salesman, and Harriet, a former editorial assistant; sisters Charlotte Bahn, 39, and Marcy Lomen, 35; and his companion of three years, civil engineer Art Campbell, 33. It also showed the bedridden Kritsick breaking into sobs as he embraced Campbell and said, "I love you."

After years of living with the secret of both his homosexuality and his sickness, Kritsick has found his national coming-out a tremendous relief. "It's like a big weight is lifted off your shoulders," says Kritsick, bundled in scarves and a parka as he stands on the beach in front of his home on Massachusetts' Nantucket Island. He shares the three-bedroom 1740 shingled house with Campbell. He has spent a difficult night, with a fever of 102 and an aching in his teeth that required morphine. Kritsick was on AZT until December 1992 but now gets through the day taking dozens of pills and alternative medicines. He is grateful for everyday his life is prolonged. "Each time I see a sunrise and a sunset," he says, "it makes me feel so alive. I pray I'll be around to see another fall, another winter, another spring and another summer on Nantucket."

Yet within several days he and Campbell will return to the Boston area, where Kritsick's parents live, to be close to them as he faces his death. He will choose a cemetery plot. He will decide to forego another round of chemo. "If you're in a lot of pain and you're not getting pleasure from each day," he will explain, "that makes it difficult to go on living." Earlier he had thought the worst thing about his illness was not being able to do his job. "I love taking care of animals," he said. "It seems that now when I go to the hospital, I have nurses and doctors asking me questions about their pets."

There is a cruel irony at work here, says his friend, GMA cohost Charles Gibson, who encouraged Kritsick to talk about his plight on the air. "Steve told me that he sometimes couldn't get doctors to return his calls—he felt he'd become an instant pariah," says Gibson. "Here is somebody who has devoted his life to taking care of animals, arid then all of a sudden he can't even get the same compassion shown to a dog or a cat."

Kritsick declines to speculate on how" he contracted the virus, except that his exposure possibly was in New York City in the late '70s. The Lexington, Mass., native—an Eagle Scout as a boy—received his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Michigan State University in 1974 and soon after moved to New York, having decided that the Boston area was not where he wanted to explore his sexuality. "I thought my parents would be embarrassed," he says. Manhattan, on the other hand, "was someplace where I could have anonymity and be who I wanted to be." At first, even he was not clear who that was. He dated women, who pursued him avidly, and had several long heterosexual relationships. Even though his looks gave him instant access to wildly uninhibited clubs like Studio 54, he says his sex life was circumspect. It wasn't until 1982 that he accepted he was gay and decided it was unfair to date women "who didn't know the truth about me," he says. Still, he confided only in his sisters and a few close friends about his sexual preference.

Soon thereafter, the first news about AIDS began spreading. By the end of the '80s, Kritsick was sure he'd been infected: his T-cell count, a measurement of the blood's resistance to disease, was falling. (He then tested HIV positive.) His lifelong devotion to fitness may have contributed to his staying healthy for years. He neither smoked nor drank, ran six to 12 miles a day and lifted weights. But things began to go noticeably wrong in December 1992, after he had taken immunization shots for a trip to Costa Rica. His temperature rose to 105 degrees and higher for five straight nights. Although he recovered, he was diagnosed with lymphoma by the following June. In August, after 20 chemotherapy treatments, the lymphoma seemed in remission, but the cancer returned early in November.

Although he had revealed his homosexuality to his parents in 1988, he had been reluctant to tell them of his illness, especially since his sister Marcy suffers from multiple sclerosis. He did inform his sisters, however, and when his health began deteriorating a year ago, he asked them to break the bad news to their parents. "That was the hardest day of my life," says Marcy. "We cried the entire way to their house. Both my parents were very angry for a few minutes—'How could this happen to our son? Why are the cards dealt this way?' " But they phoned him immediately, then drove to join him the following day.

"It's very hard to see your parents with tears in their eyes when they look at you with such worry on their faces," Steve says.

In his relationship with Campbell, Kritsick has found comfort and contentment. "There is no one more caring and giving than Art," he says. They were introduced by a mutual friend in 1990. Campbell says he was swept away. "He had so much energy when we first met," remembers Campbell. "I'd be exhausted, and Steve would be up and ready to hit an auction or a flea market." With Campbell, Kritsick has always been open about his HIV status (Campbell is HIV negative).

Campbell is at the house when Kritsick finishes his walk along the beach. "I really don't want to leave my loved ones or the sea," says Kritsick, settled into a chair in his warm, antique-filled living room. "I get a little anxious when I think about death, but I've thought about it a lot. I've had my share of heartache and disappointments. But I've had a fuller life than most people have in a lifetime."

TOM GLIATTO
SUE CARSWELL on Nantucket

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