"The secret to my survival is that I want to live," says HIV/AIDS advocate, mother and long-term HIV survivor Michelle Lopez. Back in 1991, Michelle left behind a partner who beat her and, she would soon learn, knowingly put her at risk for HIV. With nothing but her infant daughter, Michelle set out to find help -- and help did come, in the form of a subway ad for community health services. She sought out the agency, got her HIV diagnosis (and her daughter's) and got right into care and services. For the past 17 years she's been on staff at that very same agency, helping immigrants and women facing similar challenges to the ones she once faced. Michelle is a strong voice for her communities in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- and she's raised her daughter, Raven, to be an advocate just like her. "I love Michelle today, and I can teach other people that," Michelle says in this edition of This Positive Life. "We have got to start loving us, no matter what: HIV, gay, black, lesbian, Latino. You know, we are somebody."
This interview took place in late October 2009.
Michelle, let's start at the very beginning. When did you discover you had HIV?
I got diagnosed in 1991. Actually, my daughter was nine months old, a newborn baby. I was living in a domestic violence situation and, one night -- I always tend to say, in fact -- it was one of the worst, but it was one of the best, beatings that I got from the partner that I had. Because he beat some sense into me. I left.
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I was living in Brooklyn, and I just got on the train and decided I'm going to get help some how. I started riding the train, switched trains and ended up -- this must have been around, like, 9:30 -- on a No. 2 train in Brooklyn, and I saw this ad on the train. The ad said, "If you, as a woman, are dealing with any kind of substance use issues, domestic violence issues, and you need help, you can call this number." And I got off the train.
Were you with your kid?
Yeah, I had my daughter wrapped in a blanket. We were just riding the trains all night because, again, as I said, I left. I left just hoping that I was going to get help. And help did come.
I had one bottle of milk for her, literally. And her, wrapped in a blanket. She had two diapers. So when I got off the train, that was the fresh change of diaper that I gave her. She hadn't eaten for that morning, because she drank the milk that night.
I called the number and somebody really did answer the phone. I was standing at the corner of Nevins Street and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and the person who answered the phone for that ad was literally six blocks away from where I was standing. That's how faith and hope are.
I told her what was going on. I went down to the facility. Because when I told her where I was standing, she was just amazed. So she told me, "Come down to the center." At that time they were called Community Family Planning Council. They had a grant in at the time to help women who were underserved -- if you were an undocumented immigrant woman, if you were a woman who needed help.
When I walked in there, after an hour of talking to her -- she was the head nurse -- and telling her the situation that I was living in, one of the things that was offered to me was, "Would you like to take an HIV test, based on the situations that you just explained to us that are going on in your life?" I agreed to take an HIV test that was offered to me that day. I saw a doctor. Because I hadn't seen a doctor since after my daughter was born, because I had no health insurance at that time. I was what we call an undocumented immigrant. So I had no health insurance and I was not seeing the doctor.
Where are you from?
I'm from Trinidad, in the Caribbean. I shared with the nurses, and, as I said, I saw the doctor that day. And unbeknownst to me, because of me not having any health insurance, me not being in the health care system, I was also walking around with gonorrhea. So I had to be treated for gonorrhea that day.
I just went and delved right into getting health care and health services from this community health center. I can tell you proudly today, I'm on the staff of that agency. I've been working there now for the last 17 years as full-time staff, giving back to my community.
So even if you're not documented, you can still get help?
Absolutely. You can get help as an undocumented immigrant. There are no undocumented immigrants. We just don't have the documents that America wants us to have to live here. America knows very much about us. They know about our existence. So we are not undocumented immigrants. I have to make that declaration.
How old were you at this point?
I was 24. I had a baby. I have a son, and he's 22. At the time he was 3, going on 4. He pretty much really was not living with me at that time because, again, of the situation that was going on. There was drug use going on in my life. I can say that it was a very unhealthy environment. So I had willingly given my son to be with my parents in the Caribbean. Because there was a lot that was going on in my life where I just needed help.
The organization, one of the first things that they did: I had to be placed in a shelter for battered women, because of the situation. I was bruised. I needed help. And help came to me right away.
The population of people that I work with, it's the same pathway that I came from. I am identifying a lot of individuals who are undocumented immigrants, who have been living here in this country, who don't have any health insurance. So through various outreach mechanisms that I know of, the pathways that I used to be in -- emergency rooms, people being discharged from the hospitals -- I have made outreach contacts with providers, who can pick up the phone and call me and say, "Michelle, we have another person ..." Because it's very true today: There are a lot of individuals who are walking around with HIV, and have no idea -- until some of them get very ill, go through the emergency room and now have to be hospitalized.
So when they're getting discharged and they have no health insurance, I'm being called. And the agency, Community Healthcare Network, who I work for, we have health insurance that can, right away, get them into health care. We have medical services. We have grant-funded case managers who can help them navigate the different needs, from legal services to housing -- because some of them are homeless. Some of them are living with family members who have no idea that, now, this is AIDS. Because they just got diagnosed as HIV positive but, I can tell you, because of the complications they're hospitalized with, they all have AIDS.
So I'm working with that population. I go out to shelters. I disclose my status, and I talk to people about who I am. It's not about me, but I use my life in the examples: Now I'm in health care. I have 20 years of living with HIV under my belt. I'm living. And I have services. And I have a life today. And I am somebody.
I have got to also work with them in dealing with the stigma and the discrimination that are out there. A lot of immigrants, we face it on a daily basis. So I get them into care and services.
A Video Excerpt From "This Positive Life: An Interview With Michelle Lopez"