Florida meningitis outbreak hits home for Orlando Weekly's publisher

Raphael Castellano is fighting for his life. Can you help?

click to enlarge Raphael in the hospital - photo via Facebook, used with permission
photo via Facebook, used with permission
Raphael in the hospital

As a gay man in my late 40s, I grew up closeted with a dire fear of HIV, which was ravaging gay men. I’ve seen the movies Philadelphia, Rent, Pose … so many young men, healthy one day, gone the next. But I didn’t live through that era. But this week, I caught a glimpse of what that must have felt like when I learned that another virus, also spreading especially quickly among gay men, this time specifically in Florida, has taken a friend of mine from being a beautiful and healthy young man, so full of life and love, to death’s door in a matter of days.

In case you have not heard, earlier this year the CDC (and then the Florida Department of Health) issued a vaccine advisement for meningococcal disease in Florida. As of April, the number of cases identified in 2022 in Florida surpassed the five-year average. That’s more cases in less than four months than are usually reported in an entire year. The advisement is specifically for “gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.”

This news spread quickly through my circles of friends, and many of us are in the process of being vaccinated.

Last week, while I was at the gym, someone who I have seen a million times before but don’t really know approached me out of the blue and introduced himself. He asked me, “Don’t you know Raphael? I’ve seen you guys talking here.” He went on to tell me that Raphael is in the hospital with meningitis, that he has had a really tough time and is not doing well. He kept it brief. I expressed my shock and sympathy and thanked him for telling me, then immediately went to Raphael’s Facebook page.

click to enlarge Raphael before meningitis - photo via Facebook, used with permission
photo via Facebook, used with permission
Raphael before meningitis

When I got there, I was shocked — gut-wrenched, actually — to read that Raphael had just recently awakened from a coma, and
if he survived they might be able to only amputate the tips of his toes and heels, rather than his entire feet as they had feared.

Raphael is an accomplished  professional dancer and dance instructor. Our conversations just a few weeks prior (and really every time we talked in the gym) were about his trips around the country competing in dance competitions and how he was considering taking another job at Disney for the summer. Dancing was his life, which makes the notion of him losing
any part of his feet that much more heartbreaking.

I would later read that doctors had told his close friends to say their goodbyes weeks ago, and that frankly, the news I had just read about amputation was the amazingly good news. I wiped away tears right there in the gym and posted my own message of support and encouragement, but what could I say that hadn’t been said? I just wanted this dear young man to know I was pulling for him. I kept going to his page to see updates. I kept sharing this with friends of mine who didn’t even know him. And I made a contribution to the GoFundMe that his friends set up for him to pay for his medical care. But I didn’t know what else I could really do, until last Tuesday, when I was rushing to get work done before leaving to New York for Pride, and my phone rang.

To my utter astonishment someone was FaceTiming me, and it was Raphael. I answered, and honestly, I could not believe my eyes. I had never seen anyone so sick in all my life — especially considering the bubbly, extremely fit dancer, only 31 years old, that I knew this man to be. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine why, of all people, Raphael would be FaceTiming me …
me, of all people. The call was short. I asked how he felt, and told him I was rooting for him, and then I realized, he called to ask me if I could help. Could I help him get the word out about what this has done to him? He knows I am the publisher of Orlando Weekly.

So here I am, helping to get the word out for Raphael.

A single interaction with Raphael or a visit to his social media (where you may see him singing out loud on a road trip with friends!) and you immediately get the sense that this is a genuinely kind soul, one of those positive rays of light that attract people to rotate in his orbit. One minute, he was living his life as a young gay man and the next, he’s fighting to stay alive. Right now he is alive, and he is determined that he will dance again, but he needs help.

Raphael has no health insurance and no means to pay these medical bills. It will be a long road of physical therapy to recover, and he is trying to raise the money to pay for the next facility. If you have the means, please consider making a donation. I know this is but one young man, and there are so many in need, but there is no charity that I’m aware of associated with helping young men with meningitis, and I just know this man needs help and deserves another chance at living his best life.

To make a donation, you can go to Raphael's GoFundMe page.