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WORLD AIDS DAY PROFILE Jim Petrakis: Consultant becomes face of HIV/AIDS
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Most people may not know Jim Petrakis—but just about everyone is familiar, either directly or indirectly, with what he has gone through the past few years.

Petrakis is an AIDS survivor. However, more than surviving, he is thriving.

He made his journey known recently at the SOFA Chicago event by residing in a "living room" that designer/DIFFA ( Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS ) Chicago Executive Board member Richard Cassis and designer/dedicated volunteer Jake Theisen created; the installation was titled "LIFE : FIGHT : LOVE." ( Cassis, a longtime friend of Petrakis, told Windy City Times the exhibit "was the ultimate user experience, or the ultimate virtual reality. There are so many exhibits where you just see photographs and you see information presented—but we had the real deal there." )

Petrakis, 54—who lists himself as everything from a producer/director to a fundraising consultant—has certainly lived an intriguing life. He started off as a choreographer in the corporate world, having created movement for Universal Pictures, MGM, Paramount, Viacom and Disney Studios as well as celebrity clients.

"By the time I was 15, I had my own dance company," Petrakis told Windy City Times. "By the time I was 16—and, coincidentally, it was the year of Flashdance—everyone wanted dancers." Along the way, he met figures such as Arnie Morton and Jimmy Rittenberg. Eventually, he was hired to do a world tour. "I didn't even know corporate theater existed," Petrakis admitted.

Oh, yeah—and, somehow, Petrakis made time to go to college. "I went to Northwestern [University], and majored in theater/voice and journalism," he said, "but it was rough. I was three years younger than everybody, and everyone else was rich and I wasn't. But I worked while I was doing that—and two years after I graduated, those [other students] were coming to audition for my shows."

Throughout the world of fashion, Petrakis has produced collection presentations for designers such as Michael Kors, Gianni Versace ( who Petrakis said took him all over the world and introduced him to other designers ), Sonia Rykiel, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

He was also founder and president of James P. Productions for 22 years, providing the special-events community with original, live-marketing concepts and promotions. He then served as chief creative officer/executive vice president of Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment until a few years ago. Petrakis is currently founder and chief creative officer of the humanGrace foundation while also developing several independent fundraising projects in association with various philanthropic partners through his new corporate entity, Collaboration Laboratory, Inc. ( He credits his success, in part, to what he called "creative collisions." )

One of the organizations Petrakis has been intimately involved with over the years has been DIFFA. ( In fact, Petrakis has received DIFFA's Unsung Hero Award. ) He was involved with the organization for 17 years, where he did the annual ball for free, inviting corporate clients so they could see what he did.

The day he found out

Petrakis found out he had AIDS in 2008. "I was in Denmark doing an environmental conference, and I was working on a military base for six weeks. It was pretty dismal weather, and I got a sore throat. I went to the medic and said I had strep throat and they gave me a Z-Pak.

After being there for five weeks, I come back and I can barely speak or swallow. Then, [doctors] said it was my gall bladder or it was something else. So, for three weeks, I go through this horrible [process]. I can't eat and I lose all this weight. They do X-rays and see spots on my lungs. Finally, they sent me to a gastroenterologist and they scoped me; I had a four-and-a-half-inch esophageal ulcer. If I had scrambled eggs, I would have to stand at the sink and I'd be crying. I stopped eating; in three months, I lost 98 pounds.

"So, they treated the ulcer with prednisone, a steroid—and when you're treated with that, you get 20 milliliters; I was drinking 40 milligrams a day. They weaned me off of it. Three days after I was off of it, I was sitting on the edge of my bed—and that's all I remember. In fact, I couldn't remember a lot of things.

"Then, I was checked again. I was breathing at 18-percent capacity and had pneumonia. They said, 'You're dying of AIDS, but you were never HIV-positive.' Of course, [clients] still wanted me to work—but [the doctors] said I wasn't going anywhere."

Petrakis added that almost 10 specialists were examining him. "After being prodded for three weeks, they said they couldn't find a trace of my immune system," he said. "I was having these organ meltdowns. They gave me about three weeks."

Howard Brown Health's Catherine Creticos turned out to be a beacon of light for Petrakis, as he said she's the one who made the AIDS diagnosis. He then suggested to her that he try AIDS medications. Petrakis said he told her, "If I only have three weeks, let's see if they work. If I'm going to die, I might as well die with a purpose." They tested his blood; he had 31 T cells—a count that's much lower than recommended.

However, finding out this number did not discourage Petrakis; on the contrary, it made him hopeful. "My lucky number has been 13, which is terrifying to most people," said Petrakis. "I was literally lying in an oxygen tank. When I heard that number, I said, 'I'm not going to die. Thirty-one is 13 backward. I'm not going anywhere.' So they give me the drug and test me three weeks later—and it was 148. And if you add the [numerals] in 148, they become 13." It would take two-and-a-half years before he could walk again, but he was on the road to recovery.

Petrakis said the whole journey ( including dealing with that feeling of helplessness ) made him "profoundly aware of how unprepared for someone to leave us. I lost my partner, Robert, 12 years ago. We told he had six weeks; he lived for 14. We had the most amazing, terrifying, wonderful, humorous time.

"Death never bothered me. My mom was sick for nine years. When someone is sick for that long, your relationship is with the illness, not the person. ... But when someone leaves, you don't know what to do to mend the bridge."

He said he made another discovery while in the hospital: that people needed to be consoled about a loved one's possible departure. So he compiled notes and gave his therapist stacks of items about himself. Eventually, the therapist and Cassis compiled the notes into the book Eclipsed.

SOFA exhibit and World AIDS Day

The SOFA Chicago exhibition, which took place in early November, was a labor of love—and "labor" might have been the right word, according to Petrakis, who said the experience tired him, although it was worth it.

"The SOFA experience was bizarre—all those pictures of me," he said. "But over the course of four days, people were there to see an art show and they asked of [LIFE : FIGHT : LOVE"], 'What was that?' But something ran true to them.

"The exhausting part was listening to these people, because they don't have a platform. So we're going to create a social network to have people find each other. By the end of the second day, I was crawling home because it was so emotionally depleting.

"The last day, there were these three young girls." Tears started to fill Petrakis' eyes as he continued. "One of them took my hand. She was 15 and said, 'For the last two years, I've been fighting liver cancer. On Monday, I go for my last chemo treatment and they're going to take my port out. I have my friends and family, but it's been so lonely. I see myself in those pictures [in Petrakis' exhibition].' She's 15. If I died when I was 46, I lived."

Lastly, with World AIDS Day taking place this week, Petrakis was asked what he thought about the occasion. Without hesitation, he brightened and said, "I think it should be victorious."

After his journey, one can certainly see why he would go with that word.

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