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The Challenges of Medicaid and HIV in Rural Mississippi
An Interview With Cedric Sturdevant -- Part of the Series This Positive Life

By Olivia Ford

July 31, 2012

This Positive Life

Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Cedric Sturdevant, a 46-year-old gay man living in Jackson, Miss. Cedric was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2005, along with his partner at the time who was told to get tested after trying to donate blood. After an AIDS-related hospital stay, Cedric knew he wanted to get better and become a voice for those living with HIV. He started by disclosing to his family and eventually began working as an HIV advocate, speaking in particular to the African-American MSM (men who have sex with men) community in Mississippi about prevention. In this interview, Cedric talks about coming out and then later disclosing to his family, the challenges of having HIV in Mississippi and what he does to stay healthy today.


Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.


Cedric, welcome to This Positive Life. Thank you so much for joining us today. Can you introduce yourself, and just say where you're from and what you do?

My name is Cedric Sturdevant. I'm originally from a small town in Mississippi called Metcalf. Presently, I live in Jackson, Miss. I work at a nonprofit organization called My Brother's Keeper, which is a health disparity organization for minorities. I work in the HIV prevention department, where our main focus is HIV prevention among African-American MSM -- young MSM, as well as the older MSM.

Thank you. So can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive, and where you were in your life at that time?

I was actually in a town called Greenville, Texas, which is near Dallas. I found out because my partner at that time -- and we had been together for six years -- through his job, they had a blood drive. He went to give blood, and he got a call back that said he needed to go get checked.

Once he went and got checked, of course, [next came] the procedure of giving the names of the people that you've been with. So me, being his partner for that length of time, I got checked. I had to go get checked. And it came up positive. We found out together.

"Because we didn't want anyone to know -- because of stigma and fear -- and we were basically around his family, we didn't seek treatment. We didn't even try to find a doctor."
But afterwards, because we didn't want anyone to know -- because of stigma and fear -- and we were basically around his family, we didn't seek treatment. We didn't even try to find a doctor.

But I didn't know anything about it. I had not really tried to educate myself about it at that time. Later, unfortunately, me and my partner split up, and I moved to Memphis.

Between your diagnosis and moving to Memphis, what was the period of time with that?

When I moved to Memphis, it was in June. I have two daughters, and they were both living in Memphis. At that time, they were teenagers in high school. So a lot of stuff was going on with them as well; that's why I wanted to be closer to them. When I moved to Memphis, I found a doctor once I got a job. I didn't tell them that I was HIV positive. They never checked, either.

The doctors?

The doctors, they never checked. I didn't tell them. They were treating me for diabetes, and this was in June 2005. I went a year, and June 2006 is when I really started getting ill. When I was going to the doctor, they were like, "Let us give you medicine," for my glands. Still no test for HIV.

I ended up in the hospital. Actually, I noticed I was losing a lot of weight, noticed I was getting tired, noticed I couldn't hold food down. I remember it was June the 6th. I had taken off work to go to the doctor, because I was feeling really bad. That evening, when I made it home, I got a call from a friend that lived in Dallas, who worked at a funeral home, who actually told me that my partner had died. So that's a date I never forget. I always go 6/6/6; so it was June 6, 2006.

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That week my health was really getting worse. My family was in Mississippi. From Memphis to Mississippi is like two hours apart. They came that Sunday and they were trying to make me eat. They saw I couldn't, so they took me to the hospital. Actually, I had went to the hospital that Saturday night. They kept me there for five hours. Then they released me [even though] my temperature was 103 to 105 degrees.

So when my family came, they took me to the hospital -- my mother and most of my aunts and uncles. And my mother has 11 brothers and sisters. They came, and they were cooking and all that, but I couldn't eat. So they finally took me to the hospital, and they accepted me right away, and put me in what they call "almost-ICU." I think it was two or three days before they actually came to a conclusion of what was wrong.

So then what happened? Did you tell your family?

Well, the doctor came in. My mother took off work and was there with me the whole time. But at this time she had either stepped out of the room, or she was -- I have a sister that lives in Memphis, also, and she was at my sister's house or something, taking a break, because she was staying there with me overnight.

He came in and told me that I had a fungus. I don't remember the name of it. It was caused by AIDS. At that point, he told me my CD4 count was 7. And I didn't understand, because I really didn't know what it was. So he just told me it was 7; I don't remember what he said the viral load was. When he told me, he said, "You don't have to tell your mother that. We can tell her something else."

"I was afraid to tell her, because I hate to see my mother cry. So I thought that's what she was going to do. But she was like, 'You're going to be OK. God got you. You're going to be OK.'"
I was like, "No. I need to tell my mother." Because my mother is a very strong Christian woman. And I was like, "I need prayer right now." So once my mother came in, I told her. I was afraid to tell her, because I hate to see my mother cry. So I thought that's what she was going to do. But she was like, "You're going to be OK. God got you. You're going to be OK." And I never saw her cry.

Now, shortly, she left the room; she may have cried then. But I never saw her cry. Her being strong for me, actually, I think helped. And she didn't treat me any different. She treated me as her son. I mean, she was there in the hospital. I was too weak to even get up to use the bathroom at times. When the nurses came to bathe me, she would be like, "Do you want me to bathe you instead of the nurses?" So she would really do everything that a mother actually would do.

At this point, my mother was the only one that knew. And we talked about that. Once I built up some strength, she asked me, "Who do you want to tell? Or how do you want to tell?"

At that point, we decided to just tell my sisters. I don't have any brothers, just sisters.

How many sisters do you have?

I have three sisters. Once I got out of the hospital, my mother came to Memphis. I think she had left the day before I got out. My daughters actually came to the hospital and got me out.

How old were they at that point?

At that time, the oldest one was, if I'm not mistaken, 19. The youngest one was 17. And I ended up staying that night, until my mother came with my ex-wife. I still wasn't feeling good. So my mother came and got me, along with one of my sisters. They brought me back to Metcalf, my home town, to my mother's house. I was still very weak. At that time, my mother was living in an apartment, so she lived upstairs. It was just hard, even just walking up those stairs.

"But once I began to get well, gained my strength back, and once I talked with my mother and told her that I wanted to be a voice, they were like, 'We're going to be here to support you in whatever you do.'"
I woke up that Sunday morning almost in a diabetic coma. My mother had two of her brothers living with her, and one of my uncles came and he saw that I wasn't looking right. He yelled out. I could see and hear everything that they were saying, but I couldn't respond to it. So the rest of the family really didn't know what was going on. But once I began to get well, gained my strength back, and once I talked with my mother and told her that I wanted to be a voice, they were like, "We're going to be here to support you in whatever you do." So that's when I basically started telling the rest of the family.

I have a picture that I want to show. This is what I looked like a week after I got out of the hospital. It was taken at my sister's house on the 4th of July. You can see the date down here.

Hold it up a little bit more so you can see the date. OK, there you go.

My sister asked my uncle to take this picture. Later, she told me that she wanted him to take this picture so I could see how far I've come with this epidemic. Basically, I carry it around to show to people that may not be so optimistic to let them know that if I can survive it, they can, and that God saved me for a reason. I could have been dead. So he saved me for a reason.

Indeed. It sounds as if, once you started to share your diagnosis with your family, or they started to find out in their own ways, you started to have a sense that you wanted to be a voice of someone living with HIV.

Right.

How did you first get involved in doing that kind of work? Did it start within your family and branch out?

It started with the clinic I was going to. The social worker there, she was asking if I would go to certain events that they had when they test. So I started out just helping them out, not being a voice. And she kept asking me, "You ready to speak?" I was like, "No." I was still afraid. I knew I wanted to do this, but I still was afraid.

"God has saved me from this big disease with the little name."
Finally, I decided, "OK, yeah, let me speak." I spoke to some young, young kids, and I was like, "OK, these kids are not judgmental. They want to know; they have questions." That encouraged me more. And I spoke at one of the local churches in the community, at a choir concert. I don't sing, but I kind of did one of James Fortune & Fiya songs -- the talking lines, not singing -- I stated that, "God has saved me from this big disease with the little name."

People, even in a little, small town, were supportive. Later, I got the job with the organization I work for, My Brother's Keeper. It gave me a little bigger scale to work with. When there were times that people wanted someone living with HIV to speak, I would speak.

What is it like living with, and working in, HIV in Mississippi? Because, in general, in Mississippi there are a lot of challenges with funding and with access to care. I just wonder what your experience has been with that.

There are a lot of challenges in Mississippi. First of all, it's because, being one of the Bible Belt states, people don't like to talk. The conversation of HIV or AIDS, they don't want to talk about it. I think that has a lot to do with homosexuality.

Now, a lot of people in Mississippi still think that it's a gay man's disease. And they don't want to talk about homosexuality. They still want to condemn homosexuality, and still judge people because of their sexual orientation. So they don't want to talk about HIV or AIDS. Some of them -- not all, but some -- still have the sense that it's punishment, like in the '80s when it first came around.

Health care-wise, if you look at our Medicare and Medicaid programs, they only allow you to get five medications. So, if you're HIV positive, like I am, and you have other chronic diseases, like I do, you can only get five medications. So even if you've got four [pills] for HIV and you may have to have two [pills] for diabetes or something else like hypertension, and you're on Medicaid, it's only going to take care of five of the meds. For people that may be at very low income, it's like, "OK. I either take my meds and not eat or eat and not take my meds." So that's one thing.

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Because Mississippi is a rural area, people that live out in rural areas in Mississippi, they have a challenge of transportation, getting to care. Some people have to travel 50 or 40 miles just to get to a clinic. I think we're at shortage; I think we need more HIV specialists. You have a lot of people that have been pushed into it because of the rate of infections. So I think we need more specialists.

In some cases, we need more nurses and doctors and social workers with manners, to be more cordial and sensitive to what's going on, and to the people that they are seeing.

I hear a lot of grounding in spirituality in your life. How has that jived with talking about HIV? Also, are you open about being a man who has sex with men when you're talking in churches and with your family? Talk a little bit about how that's been, even back before you were diagnosed with HIV.

Before I was diagnosed with HIV, I was open with my family, as far as my sexual orientation. Actually, I honestly didn't come out until I was 32 years old. But I knew when I was a child that I was interested in, or liked, men. I went through the period of teenage years wanting to kill myself, because I'm different. You know, "I'm the only one in this town that's different. I'm the only one that likes boys." And hearing that it's so wrong, "You're going to go to Hell," and all that good stuff, I thought about suicide.

So I got married, thinking, "OK, if I get married to this woman, then those feelings of me wanting to be with a man will go away." I was married for seven years. Of course, I didn't cheat on her with a man -- or a woman, as a matter of fact -- but I still had those feelings.

When my ex-wife and I finally separated, a few years later I came out to my mom. Being a mother, she was like, "What are you doing being gay?" I'm like, "La, la, la, la, la."

And she went, "The Bible, dah, dah, dah."

I said, "Well, there are a lot of things that the Bible says that the people are doing."

Then she was like, "Oh, boy, I knew all along. I love you regardless. You're my son." So that gave me support, but I still was kind of shut in. I felt better because mom knew. I think that's during the time when I met my partner. He's the only one that my mom has ever met, as far as me saying, "This is my partner." And they were crazy about him.

I was living in Texas. When we traveled to Mississippi, they fell in love with him instantly. Even after he and I split up, he would leave Texas and go visit my folks. I'm like, "I'm not there; why are you there?" But once the family found out, then it was OK. It was no judgment. I don't know what they said behind my back, but they didn't treat me any differently.

Even my uncles, and there are a few of my uncles that are close to my age. Whenever they met him, whenever we came home, they treated him just like one of the boys. So, it was great.

That eliminated the fear. I was only concerned that mom wouldn't love me after she found out. But when mom said, "I love you," and when my sisters were like, "I love you," and the rest of the family [said the same], it didn't matter to me what anyone else thought.

It kind of played the same way when I became HIV positive, and went through that. I had that support.

Switching gears a little bit, how has your health been since you were very sick? Are you taking meds? Is there anything you do to keep healthy besides that?

Yeah, I'm taking meds. From the beginning, I was taking about seven meds. Now, I take three. I have an undetectable viral load. My last doctor's appointment, my CD4 count was in the 500s. I eat differently -- not always, but now I do -- because I'm trying to lose weight. Actually, I was a little bit bigger than this a couple of months ago. So I went to baked breasts and vegetables for a while.

From time to time, I walk. When I have time I walk, at least three miles. Actually, the organization just got a fitness center. I think we'll be able to use it starting next month because of all the policies and the paperwork needed to get done. That will be helpful.

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The reason I got back fit so quick is because my sister had a gym herself. She didn't have money to pay anyone, so I volunteered to be there, to allow her clients to come in to work out. In that instance, I was able to start working out myself. I think that's why I rapidly gained the strength that I needed back, which I think is very important.

Then I try to eat right for my diabetes. So that contributed, too. And less stress. I don't stress. That may be a reason why I ain't got a man, either. Because I don't want anybody to stress me.

Do you have any tips for others who are trying to reduce stress? Or how to look at situations in a way that reduces the stress response?

This may not be good, but I'll see someone else that may be a little bit worse off than me, and I realize, "Hey, I'm blessed." Some of the things that I do: I love to travel. So when I do have the finance, I'll just leave a weekend, and go somewhere. I don't have to go with a crowd or anyone; I go by myself. Relax.

When I get off work, most of the time, when there's not a need for working on a grant, or anything like that, I leave work at work. I don't go out all the time, other than doing outreach. And when you do outreach, it's local clubs. Personally, just going out to the club to hang out, I don’t do that a lot, but there are times I want to relax, and go out, and have fun. And I'll do that.

I think the key thing is just living your life. Most people stress out because they be trying to live life for other people, or the way other people want them to live life. If you just live your life, and just not give a damn about what other people feel, or how other people perceive you, if you're living your life in a way that's making you happy -- you just got to be you.

"You'll be less stressful if you just be you, and not try to live life for other people, the way they want you to live."
You'll be less stressful if you just be you, and not try to live life for other people, the way they want you to live. Because it stresses you out. And I've seen that a lot, especially with these young guys who are afraid to come out, as far as being gay. It stresses them out. It leads to things that you don't want to do. That's something that leads to risky behaviors.

How do you think having HIV has changed you?

I think it's changed me tremendously. First of all, I look at life totally differently. What I mean when I say that is that I enjoy life more now. I appreciate life more now than before I knew my diagnosis. It has given me a sense of help. I'm able to help others by using my life.

I tell people now, a lot of times, "This is not my life. God is using me to do his work. And I'm enjoying it along the way."

Like now, sitting here -- yeah, I always sit in front of my camera, talking about my homosexuality or HIV. So it has actually made me a little bit braver, in the sense of looking at Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, when they stood up for something that they believed in. Giving me that sense, OK, I can stand up for stuff I believe in too now, not because it has affected other people, but because it affected me.

I just won't be defeated by HIV or AIDS. Even if I were to die, it still didn't win. It helps me to keep going, and going, and going. And it gives me a purpose, especially when I talk to the younger guys. I see that they're listening. And some may not be listening. But I see that they're listening and it's like, "OK, God. You giving me what I asked for."

Wow. Is there anything else that you want to share with our viewers and folks who are listening to your story?

If there's anyone who's living with HIV -- and family members, basically, are who I want to have this focus on -- you will help that person a lot from your love and support. If it wasn't for the love and support of my family, I don't know if I would still be here. I probably would have given up. Once they found out, there was no throwing the dishes away. There was no, "You can't be around the baby," or none of that. It was like nothing really happened.

"If you don't have support, just build yourself up. There will be somebody that will support you. But you've got to want to support yourself first. It starts with you."
I think that's the main thing. Because I hear a lot of the young guys now are afraid to tell their family. They are living in Jackson, but they're not from Jackson. They have no one but us -- when I say us, I mean myself, and then some of the other staff at My Brother's Keeper -- to lean on. And that's hard. I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for my family. They support me a lot.

If you are a person that's living with HIV, you can do whatever you want to, still. But you have to make sure you stay on your medicine, your treatment. It's no, "Woe, woe, woe is me. I'm going to die tomorrow." No you're not. You got to continue to be on your meds.

If you don't have support, just build yourself up. There will be somebody that will support you. But you've got to want to support yourself first. It starts with you. It starts with you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


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