How has your health been, generally? Have you had any HIV-related health issues since you were diagnosed?
I have had no HIV-related illnesses at all. I've been blessed in that way. But I think the advancements of the drugs that are out now have really cut down on some of those problems that people in prior years have had.
How did you find your HIV doctor? What's that relationship like? Have you had the same doctor for a while, or have you switched?
Initially I was with a program here in Virginia that deals with a lot of HIV-positive people, an Inova Juniper Program, which is wonderful, in the area, with some of the best doctors. I was connected with the Inova Juniper Program for several years, until I became happily eligible to get insurance through my work. So I've been working with Kaiser Permanente. I ended up with an infectious disease doctor through Kaiser, and he's just great. It's wonderful there. There are a lot of resources in Virginia right now, as far as medical care, that are really good.
I've been thankful for them for keeping me with the same doctor. I've been pretty much with the same physicians since I've been involved with them. That makes it a lot easier.
Do you know your current CD4 count and viral load?
Right now I know that I'm about 4-something. I haven't gotten my test for this month. I'm due to have my blood work done. But I know at the last count it was at 4-something. And I don't pay too much attention to the numbers. I know that it has dropped from what was almost normal -- that is, 1,200 -- from some time ago; but it has remained, with the medication, at a safe level. I know that they, certainly the doctors say that if it would drop below 3-something, they really get a little concerned about changing your medicine. But mine has stayed around 4-something, so I'm really thankful for that. I have been undetectable ever since I was diagnosed.
Is there anything else that you do to stay healthy besides HIV meds? It sounds like prayer and spirituality are very important. Do you exercise, or keep a special diet? How does spirituality support your health now?
I'm not a person that exercises a lot. Through my work, I do a lot of walking; I drink a lot of water; I try to eat a lot of fruits; I do take vitamins.
The best thing that has helped me, in addition to my faith, is I laugh a lot. I think laughter and happiness can pull you through, and do a lot of things with your immune system, and with your spirit, and with your body. Because of my work, a lot more people know now about my virus. And so I'm able to laugh about things that at one time I thought I would never be able to laugh about.
I surround myself with wonderful people. I've been blessed with a great extended family of friends, and they just keep me laughing, and they keep my life normal for me. I don't sit around and think about my virus as much as I used to, because there's always so much else going on that that's not an issue.
I see so many other people around me that are healthy, so that's encouraging -- that life is still wonderful. I see wonderful people who have been positive much longer than myself. And they're still healthy, and they're still happy. So that's encouraging, as well.
At this point, it sounds as if you're open about your HIV status to everyone close to you. Are there still people in your life with whom you haven't yet shared your status?
I was fortunate enough to be a part of a PSA that was done for Fairfax County Health Department. It's called "Breaking the Silence." I had a part in that, and it's been televised all over the Northern Virginia area. So a lot of people know me now for being an HIV/AIDS advocate.
Being very open about my HIV status has been a good therapeutic thing for me, too. The more I'm able to find out that my sharing my story may help someone think twice about their risky behaviors, or make someone feel more comfortable with talking about their status; it's a wonderful feeling.
The work that I do puts me out there. I do HIV presentations at local schools, as well as some health facilities and organizations throughout the area. So I'm always talking about it. I'm always learning more about the issues that other people are dealing with. And I find that having people like myself and others, who are openly discussing it, and forums like on TheBody.com for us to talk about it; it's so encouraging to other people. So I think my status is known by everybody who knows me.
How long have you been doing HIV work, in general?
I actually started as what we call a Face to Face speaker with NOVAM [Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry], probably in 2007. And through the success of my story being told, and me continuing to learn more, I was hired as an HIV prevention specialist. I did Internet outreach. I was hired in 2008, and I've been here ever since.
I've actually been working on a program called HEARTS, which stands for Health Education and Risk Reduction Training Services. This program works with African-American MSM [men who have sex with men] youth. It helps them to recognize the challenges in their lives that put them at risk for HIV, and to try to deal with some of the blocks in their lives that put them at risk, as well. It also just provides them with that someone that can openly talk with them about their situation, and help them to work around resources that are available to keep them safe. Some of them are positive, and some of them are not. So we incorporate the youth that are positive to educate the ones that are not, and explain to them how they can change some of their behaviors, and incorporate condoms into their activities, and to be a support system for them. It's been a wonderful experience, doing that for the last several years.
But I still do the Internet outreach. I still do the Face to Face presentations. I also now have the pleasure of working with the faith community, helping churches in the area to start HIV/AIDS ministries, and doing testing at the churches. There have been a lot of wonderful opportunities that have come from just being a Face to Face speaker, and getting hired. Every program that becomes available that they feel I am capable of contributing something to, they give me the opportunity.
What's been your experience working in the faith community around HIV/AIDS issues?
There's been some resistance. It's been very difficult to stand in some of the pulpits and talk about anal and oral sex, and vaginal sex, and not have some of the parishioners cringe a little bit. But I think the reality is that everyone now realizes that this virus is preventable. I think that people are more willing now to openly talk about things that are going on in the church, and how the church can play a role.
The church has always been a place where people can go and get information, for many, many years. It's important to now have the churches be a little more open to talk about these issues to their congregations, and let them know that this is an issue that has truly affected every area of the community. It's important to be able to go to church and get that knowledge, because these are people that we trust to give us the correct information about things that affect our lives.
They're open to the trainings, but they don't want condoms in the church. They don't want to promote anything by presenting condoms to people. But they've been very open about understanding that, in fact, some of their own congregation are infected or affected by this virus. So I think they see they really have no choice now but to open up and deal with that situation. I think it's been a wonderful success here in Northern Virginia.
What kind of work were you doing before you were diagnosed with HIV, and before you started working at NOVAM?
Before that I was a home health aide, but I hadn't worked in a while after my diagnosis. One of the therapeutic things that I was informed of was getting involved with the Face to Face program. That's how I started kind of building myself back up, being able to openly talk about my diagnosis to people, and seeing that what I thought was the end for me was actually a beginning.
I had always done home health care, certified nursing assistant -- that type of work -- but this HIV diagnosis made me feel like I needed to start moving away from so much of that. My diagnosis turned my life around, and gave me a new vision. It gave me a new mission. At first I was still dealing with the depression, still dealing with, in fact, some suicidal thoughts -- a lot of things that a lot of people express that they, too, have dealt with in this virus. With everyday life, we get discouraged. And then when we add the HIV onto it, that's another issue that makes things difficult.
Doing the Face to Face speaking is what I've been doing, what I've enjoyed doing, and what has helped to encourage me to feel better about my position in life. So I'm sticking with the HIV prevention, at this point.