This Positive Life: Tyrone Lopez on Being an HIV-Positive Voice in the Tohono O'odham Nation
August 1, 2013
In terms of raw numbers, the HIV epidemic among Native Americans may not seem as dire as it is among African Americans and other ethnic groups. However, Native Americans are the group with the third-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.; and compared with other races/ethnicities, Native Americans have poorer survival rates after diagnosis and face special HIV prevention challenges, including poverty and culturally based stigma.
People like Tyrone Lopez, of the Tohono O'odham nation, work in their own communities in hopes of reversing these trends. After a relationship with an IV drug user, Tyrone became HIV positive and started becoming a voice for all people living with HIV -- gay, straight, man, woman and otherwise -- in his nation. He announced his status and sexuality over the radio, he does education and prevention work among incarcerated Native Americans, and now that he also drives the van that shuttles his clients to doctor's appointments and other services, he doesn't sleep in late anymore, either.
Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?
I ended up with an opportunistic infection. I ended up with PCP (Pneumocystis pneumonia). I was in the hospital for about three weeks. They were running all kinds of tests; they weren't too sure. Then they finally asked if they could run an HIV test. After that, I said OK.
They kept me in isolation for those three weeks, actually. So it was a little bit hard. I was pretty weak, and stuff like that. But my aunt and my cousin came -- my mom just ran into them. And the doctor came in and said, "While we're going to do that, there's a chance that ... you know how things are. They may not go well."
So my aunt and my cousin -- well, my sister -- wanted to stay. I call her my sister, not my cousin. But they wanted to stay. And I said, "No." I said, "Go home. Remember what time I'm supposed to have this, and just take some time and do a little prayer for me. And that's it."
But at the time they didn't know. I had my legs out, and my sister had said, "God, your legs are so skinny." So I covered them up, because I was a little bit embarrassed when she said that. And so after that I hadn't really told them, but I figured they knew what I had.
What year was this?
This was in 2003.
OK. So, now, just so I can get clear on the timing and everything: You had PCP?
You had already had it for three weeks before, and been in the hospital before they did an HIV test?
Well, they were running everything when I first went in. They thought it was TB. They thought it was maybe some type of pneumonia or fungal infection, whatever. And then they asked if I could do the HIV test, and I said, "Sure." I said, "Just as long as I can get better; that's no problem."
But I was sick first, and I ended up in the hospital. They sent me back home with some medication. But the following day, I still wasn't feeling good. My parents had taken off for a party, so I had talked to my next-door neighbor. (He was getting ready for his date. I kind of felt bad for that.) I said, "I need to go to the hospital, and I need to go now."
At the time that you tested positive in 2003, did you realize that you were at risk for HIV?
Yes, I did, just because of who I was dating at the time. Number one, they were an IV drug user. And, granted, they started getting a little bit lazy, where they were getting money from their parents, or Grandma. And so, you know, it just kind of became worse and worse. So I had an idea who I got it from. Because they did take an HIV test, and they came back and told me. They were really mad at me, calling me all kinds of names, and stuff like that. Then, about a day, maybe two days later, said, "Oh, it was a false positive."
I never thought about it until way later on. Because, at that time, tests were taking at least two weeks. So I figured he knew. But he never said anything about it. And me, being who I am, I just didn't think, "OK, we're going to have to start using protection." Because I was young. I was probably in my mid-20s at the time. The person I was dating was like seven years older than I was.
It's just one of those things, where you never think about it ... until after.
What did you think, and how did you feel, when you first found out that you were positive?
Believe it or not, I was OK with it. I think the doctor was more somber than anything else. He was a doctor that everybody liked. He was cute -- you know, in a military uniform. Everybody that I knew really liked him a lot.
But the thing is, he was an infectious disease doctor, which was good. And he was more somber. He just came in, put his hand on mine, and said, "Mr. Lopez, I hate to say this, but your test came back positive."
And I said, "OK."
It didn't hit me, or anything. I was OK with it. Of course, they gave me medication to take when I got back home. It was just, I was dealing with it, probably a lot better than most people.
I knew it was through sex. Because I didn't do any IV drug use or anything like that. I think that's why, like I said, that's why I was more calm, and knowing ... But the funny thing was, when I was in the hospital, I kept on seeing this commercial, saying, "Know your status." And when they told me about my status, I'd probably seen it twice after that. And that was it.
I usually tell people when I do talks in my sessions that I'm not mad or anything like that. God gives you what you can handle. And I think, since there are really not that much advertisements on TV or anything like that, it's easier for me to kind of come out, in a sense ... especially to my communities that I serve.
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