Serodiscordant: It's not a word you hear every day. It's a relationship in which one partner is HIV positive and the other partner is negative. It's the reality for many couples out there, including Peter and Kathy McLoyd, who had been longtime friends and colleagues until 2004, when they began dating and got married -- all in the same year.
While many believe HIV is a challenge too big for a couple to overcome, nothing could be further from the truth for the McLoyds. Together, they told Kathy's family of Peter's HIV status; together, they make sure Peter adheres to his medication; and together, they are trying to raise awareness around other couples like themselves. There is no distance here; their love is a glue stronger than HIV, and it is crystal clear that they are each other's hero. Now, if Kathy could just get Peter to stop smoking.
Olivia Ford: Peter, could you start by telling us how you first found out you were HIV positive?
Peter McLoyd: In 1996, I had quite a few emergency room visits to the hospital. I was diagnosed with bronchitis once and a couple of times with thrush. At that time, I was an active substance abuser, an IV drug user with heroin being my drug of choice. On one of those visits, the emergency room physician told me that thrush was an indication that I might be HIV infected. But he didn't offer me HIV testing or tell me where I could go to get tested. Eventually, I went and was tested in February of 1997. I tested positive for HIV and was actually diagnosed with AIDS shortly after that and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. That was here in Chicago.
Olivia Ford: When you first got your diagnosis, what were you thinking and how were you feeling? Did you know anything about HIV?
Peter McLoyd: I knew a little bit about HIV. I knew that sharing needles was a risk factor. I knew that, in the course of the many years, over 25 years of using drugs and shooting heroin, that I had, in fact, at times shared syringes. So I knew that much. So it wasn't a big surprise that maybe I was HIV positive. What was shocking was that it was an AIDS diagnosis as well. That was a bit of a shock.
Olivia Ford: Were you two together at that point?
Kathy McLoyd: No, not at that point.
Olivia Ford: We'll definitely come to where you enter the frame in a little bit, Kathy. But, Peter, how did you first come to terms with your diagnosis? Who did you first tell?
Peter McLoyd: I told my family. I'm pretty close to my family, even though I had given them fits over the years, because of my issues with drugs and things like that. But I felt comfortable sharing it with them -- my sisters and brothers, and eventually my two children. It was a wake-up call in terms of the drug abuse. When I entered HIV care and treatment at what was then Cook County Hospital, I was also offered an opportunity to get engaged into substance abuse treatment, and I was really motivated. I was motivated to stop using drugs and I was motivated to get whatever treatment was available for HIV. That led me into doing some volunteer work and becoming a peer educator. And eventually, finding a full-time job doing this work.
Olivia Ford: What was the span of time between 1996, when you were coming down with these illnesses, and your actual HIV diagnosis, and then getting into recovery and then starting to work in the community?
Peter McLoyd: It was fairly quickly. I think I entered into care in the early spring of 1997. That summer, I was really motivated by some of the other individuals who I met, who were living with HIV, who were doing volunteer work, and who were peer educators. I thought it was something that I would really like to do. I had to go on disability right away, because I was so sick and I had lost a significant amount of weight. Once I started on antiretroviral therapy, it was amazing; within a couple of weeks, I felt different and I wanted to really do something productive with my time. In the fall of the first year, I started doing some volunteer work. The organization where I was receiving care opened its doors in October of 1998: the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center. I became a volunteer and a peer educator there. Eventually, I was hired for a full-time position as an outreach worker. That was the catalyst for not just doing outreach work, but being an advocate and developing my skills as an advocate and it just kind of mushroomed from there.
Olivia Ford: All right. When did you two meet each other?
Kathy McLoyd: Well, I came on board [at the CORE Center] in 2000. I met Peter in 2000. He was the first person I saw at the registration desk, actually. I thought, hmm, he's very nice. Then we just became friends because we worked together and we were colleagues. In 2004, we got together as a couple. We got married quite fast in 2004. I think we were engaged in February, and were married in June of the same year. So yeah, it was pretty fast. I had known him for four years as a friend, so I could bypass all the other dating stuff that people have to go through. He was my friend first; I knew all about him. He seemed to be a very nice man, a very knowledgeable advocate in the field of HIV. I learned a lot from him. And so it was just a smooth transition. Very easy.
Peter McLoyd: One of the things that really attracted me about Kathy, other than her great beauty, was that she was very passionate about her nursing and about the clients and the patients. She was a pediatric nurse at that time and she was very involved in not only the care of the children that she was taking care of, but their families. And so, she would come to me and ask me questions about resources and things like that. I found that very attractive. Then we had an opportunity to actually do some volunteer work in Africa. So we spent a couple of weeks in Kenya. I just really fell in love with Kathy in Kenya -- really working side by side with her as she was; she did triage nursing in a very rural area of Kenya. I literally fell in love with her in Africa and I wrote her a letter from Africa and mailed it to her house back here in the U.S. A long letter, telling her that I didn't want her to be uncomfortable, but this is just how I felt. And she could either ignore the letter or we could talk about it later when we got back to the States. When we were back in the U.S., I kept saying, "Did you get a letter?" And she said, "I had so much mail when I got back, that I haven't even looked at the mail." She was like, "Why are you asking?" I was like, "Oh, just curious." Then one day she came to work and she had this really odd look on her face, and I knew she must have gotten the letter.
Kathy McLoyd: I got the letter. [Laughs] I got the letter. So it just made sense. We talked about it. Yeah, we did. Because there are a lot of questions. We were co-workers. It's hard enough working in the same place and being partners, but if it didn't work out, what would that mean? I knew he was positive, so what would that mean? I had a lot of questions, but the person that I went to for the answers was Peter. We had a long talk. I was a nurse in the field, so I knew what precautions to take and I knew that HIV doesn't define him. He was the person that I wanted to be with and HIV was just, it was just there. You know? It was just something that was just there. Once I learned about it, and was comfortable with it, it didn't bother me. Probably one of the most challenging things is being the caregiver. I thought I had to take care of him all the time, but I think it was one of his providers who said, "He can take care of himself; you can relax a little." I needed to hear that. Going into a relationship as the negative person, plus being a nurse -- I'm a nurturer by trade -- I just felt I had to be there for him and do everything. He probably felt really smothered at one time. But I thought I had to do it. As time went on, I relaxed a lot. I still do for him a lot, I think. I make sure he takes his meds and eats correctly and I'm really trying to get him to stop smoking.
Peter McLoyd: Oh god ...
Kathy McLoyd: Please do not edit that.
Olivia Ford: I will not.