When did you first realize that you were African American?
The town where I grew up helped to shape my identity as an African American by instilling in me black culture. So, when I left home to attend college, all of a sudden I became a minority because I was at a state university with very few black students.
How have you learned to deal with racism?
Over time, as I became more educated and enlightened, I began to understand racism. I dealt with racism by ignoring it. As I've aged, I deal with racism by continuing to talk about it and point it out when I see it. I also learn to deal with it by associating myself with other enlightened people for support.
I've been working in the field of HIV for almost 15 years now, focusing most of my work on programs for African Americans. It's a terrible injustice that blacks only represent about five percent of the physicians in the U.S. We have good treatments and good prevention methods, but they don't always seem like they are being delivered in an appropriate manner for African Americans. I think having more African Americans in the field is one way to address health disparities, although it has to be a multidimensional approach.
How can we encourage more African Americans to practice HIV medicine?
Getting more African Americans to practice HIV medicine has to start with the medical schools. They need programs to attract black students and provide them with the funding to attend medical school. Once there, they can expose them to different medical specialties, including infectious diseases.
What is the biggest challenge facing African Americans today in terms of HIV?
The biggest challenges facing African Americans today in terms of HIV include poverty, racism and denial. These are formidable challenges that really have nothing to do with HIV. Additionally, the local challenge is that the majority of HIV cases are among gay white men, which overshadows the disproportionate impact [of HIV] on African Americans. There are only a few black folks that serve on the local HIV boards and committees, and I have often been the only black person at the table. I get frustrated sometimes because I get the impression that no one is paying me any attention. Despite my frustrations, I keep doing it because I am able to see how my work really does make a difference.
What are your fears and hopes for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV?
My fear for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV is that they will become complacent. Many are growing up in a good time where we have good treatments for HIV. They have missed the opportunity to see their friends and family dropping like flies to this disease. That's a good thing, that they don't have to witness that, but not seeing it can also make you complacent. I hope that the next generation can stay motivated to demand the services and resources that our community desperately needs.
What do you think about our government's response to HIV? How would you grade its performance?
I am very disappointed by the Bush Administration's lack of support for HIV. [President Bush] gives the impression that he's more concerned about HIV in other countries, but he hasn't really done much there either. I'd give him a D. Congress deserves a D for stalling on the Ryan White [CARE] Act reauthorization.
How has your health been since you were diagnosed?
My health has been excellent since my diagnosis in 1995. I haven't had any HIV-related illnesses. I was living a fairly healthy lifestyle before my diagnosis, and it continues today. I started HIV medications about six months after diagnosis and took them for about five years. Then I was off for about four years. Now, for the last year, I've been back on -- what I think is -- my third combination.
What medications are you taking now?
What motivated you to stop and restart your medications?
I started medications early, because the belief was to "hit early and hit hard." All along, my CD4s had been pretty steady and my viral load had been undetectable. So, I asked my doctor, "How do we know that my immune system is not keeping the virus at bay?" I hadn't really been off of medications since I was infected. [He answered] that the only way to know was to stop taking medications. So I did, with his guidance. I restarted four years later, because my percentages were trending downward.
How did you choose your current doctor?
I'm a part of an HMO [health maintenance organization], and I requested the HIV specialist as my primary care provider. Working in the field of HIV affords me the opportunity to have firsthand knowledge about HIV specialists.
Do you think you are getting the best care possible?
I feel like I get the care I need. I think my doctor has gone to bat for me to get the medications that I need, since HMOs have formularies.
Is your doctor an African American?
My first HIV specialist was black, but that was back in Houston. My current doctor is white. I feel like we are partners in terms of making medical decisions.
Do you have a particular health regimen that helps you stay well?
In addition to HIV medications, I take multivitamins and see a naturopathic physician on occasion. I go to the gym regularly and see a psychotherapist when I need to.