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This Positive Life: An Interview With Joyce Turner Keller

October 12, 2010

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Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Archbishop Joyce Turner Keller. Joyce, 60, never thought that HIV would ever happen to her -- she was a "good Christian" woman who devoted her life to her family, community and church. But then everything changed for the Baton Rouge resident when she was raped and later diagnosed with AIDS. This advocate and grandmother of three discusses why giving up was never an option, the dire importance of educating the faith community about the epidemic, and her own nonprofit for young people, Aspirations.

Can you start from the beginning? Can you describe how you found out you were HIV positive?

I got in a car accident en route to a black caucus event in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2001. Leg became infected. Did not have insurance. Could not afford to see a doctor. And October 29, after many nights of aches and pains, I finally went to see someone, after sitting at the Earl K Long hospital, public hospital, after 72 hours, my name was finally called. I was offered an HIV/AIDS test and I was told that my immune system might be compromised. I didn't know what in the world that meant. "Compromised? Immune system? Me? How dare they?" And I was like, "OK, just want to know what's wrong." This was October the 29th, 2001. I turned 52, November the 9th, 2001. And for my birthday, I received a positive diagnosis for HIV, November the 14th, 2001.

What was your reaction? Were you shocked?

Actually, no. I was relieved because I knew something was wrong. Finally, I knew what it is. Since I know what it is, I now know there will be steps that I can take to fix it. The shame of it is that I knew nothing about HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS had nothing to do with me. I mean I'm a praying woman. I'm in the ministry and one of the things I've realized [is] that all the prayers didn't protect me against HIV and AIDS and I knew that's when I had to take another step.

So just to be clear: You had gotten in a car accident. And you were having a lot of pains and you weren't feeling well?

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Right. I got in a car accident, earlier part of the year. And my right leg was damaged. Because the doctor couldn't see any visible signs of trauma or damage, he assumed that I was trying to rip off the insurance company. I didn't have money for an X-ray, so I was -- the state denied treatment because I went to a private physician. And as a result of that and my pride, the pain got worse and I just dealt with it. I ended up with severe blood clots in April of that year.

On April 24, I'm in the hospital. While I'm in the hospital I was only asked what I did for a living, how old I was -- that was it. I was not given an HIV/AIDS test then, even though we know that blood clotting is a precursor to being diagnosed HIV positive. The doctors assumed that I'm over 50, I'm not really having sex, so why bother? Nobody asked me about my sexual history or anything. I only found out after I became sicker and sicker.

What were some other symptoms that you had?

I was having fever and night sweats. But here I just turned 52, so I'm thinking I'm menopausal. I began to accept the diagnosis. I was tired. I was beginning to lose weight. But all this was attributed to my busy lifestyle. I was a full-time student at Southern University, raising my grandchildren, getting them off to school every morning. I was involved in community activities. I'm a minister. I'm a grandmother. I'm just doing so many things. I just attributed all that to just my being overactive instead of saying I might need to see a doctor.

Let's go back to when you found out you were positive. Was it a letter? Did the doctors call you in to talk to you? Walk us through that point.

I had a doctor's appointment for 4 o'clock on a Wednesday. My doctor said, "You know you're HIV positive?" I said, "No." She said, "Well you are." I said, "OK." And she sat there and I sat there. I guess she was waiting for a reaction and I didn't have one. So I asked if there was anything else I needed to know. She said, "Well, from now on you don't come here anymore. You go to the EIC." I said, "What is EIC?" She said, "The Early Intervention Clinic." I said, "And what is that for?" She just told me I was HIV positive. She said, "It's the AIDS clinic." I was like, "What's the difference between HIV and AIDS?" I didn't ask the question but in my mind I'm pondering it.

And she sits there and says, "Is there anything else you want to know?" I said, "I have a loss of appetite. I'm having problems with my throat. I'd like for you to give me something that'll stimulate my appetite." She says, "I can't do that." I say, "OK." And she sits there waiting for a response. And I looked at my watch and I say, "I'm sorry. But it's about 10 minutes after four. So can you please tell me if there's anything else I need to do because I've got to get home to take care of my grandkids." She was like, "OK."

So about six months later, I finally had a conversation with her. And I ask her, "Why were you sitting there so disconnected from me?" She said, "Because I was waiting for your reaction." And for me, I'm thinking that this woman doesn't care. It's just that she didn't know what to expect from me because she explained to me that oftentimes when she does give someone a diagnosis -- she said, "I've had men fall out. You're sitting there so calm and so serene. I'm thinking you're going to have a breakdown and you're trying to figure out how you're going to go home and take care of your grandkids." And I explained to her it wasn't that I wasn't concerned. It's just that I knew I had to prioritize. I had made a commitment to my grandkids that I had to keep. I promised them they were going to go to church that night to perform.

"The first lesson that I learned as an HIV/AIDS-positive woman is that you don't tell folks at McDonald's."

And I had to get that done. So about four hours after being diagnosed positive, after the kids performed, I was able to disclose to my girlfriends that I was positive.

And what did they say?

They cracked up.

Cracked up like?

Fell apart. And I'm like, "I'm the one that's positive. What's wrong with you?" So the first lesson that I learned as an HIV/AIDS-positive woman is that you don't tell folks at McDonald's. [Laughs.] You don't tell people at McDonald's that "I just got a positive diagnosis for HIV."

And then I realized that "look at how I have disconnected myself from the community." Because I was thinking, "I'm a minister. I should know about this. I'm someone who's supposed to be saving souls. And I've missed so many opportunities to save lives. I've got to do better."

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