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This Positive Life: An Interview With James Bender

December 3, 2010

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"Four of my sisters out of the five wanted to shun away from me. They didn't want me to talk about it and didn't want people to know. But I had a sister who worked in the hospital with AIDS patients. So she helped me educate the family. And eventually, they came around."

How old were you when you were diagnosed?

Twenty-seven. There were others who were diagnosed with me back in those days; but it's only a few of us left now. So it's a blessing to be here this long.

When you told your family, what did they say?

Well, my dad was open. But my mom was, well you know how mothers are. She wanted to know how and why, who, and all of this, which, I didn't know at the time. Four of my sisters out of the five wanted to shun away from me. They didn't want me to talk about it and didn't want people to know. But I had a sister who worked in a hospital with AIDS patients. So she helped me educate the family. And eventually, they came around. Some of them came around four or five years later, but they eventually came around.

So, when you were diagnosed, you were pretty sick.

Oh, yeah.

What's your health been since then?

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Oh, it's been great since then. Once I got over the pneumocystis pneumonia I got better. It took me about four or five months to get over the pneumonia, but once I got over the pneumonia and I started gaining more weight, I got a lot better. I started taking better care of myself, getting my rest and I watched what I was eating. At that time, I was eating anything.

Southern food?

Right. Living on a farm, so I was eating good every day. So I started to watch what I was eating. I was always active, so I was always exercising. So it made me get more serious about my exercising. And I changed my lifestyle, because that was a must.

So, now you're still on your medication?

Well, I'm on Combivir, which has AZT in it -- but it's not just AZT. That's right. And I'm on Kaletra. I take both of them twice a day. I've been on those for about four years, now.

How do you make sure you adhere to your medication?

Well, I set myself on a timer. When I get up in the morning, I take them. I can take the Combivir and Kaletra on an empty stomach. Then I eat my breakfast. Then, before I eat supper, I take them again, or after -- about an hour after I eat supper. So I take them in the morning when I get up, and then at night when I go to bed.

Has it been hard for you to take your medication? In the beginning was it harder? Or were you just, like, "I want to live and I'll just take them."

Well, I knew that I had seen so many people that started on their meds and stopped, and then they didn't make it. So I think that was the adhering part for me. I had a good doctor, and she told me, "If you've got a problem, call me." So that helped.

And some of the meds I did go on didn't agree with me. So I went to her and she'd change it. I didn't stop on my own, though. Because when I started she told me, "Once you stop, you're making your body, uh . . ."

Resistant?

". . . resist the meds." So I listened to her.

"When I went to my doctor, she told me that she really didn't know a whole lot about HIV, because it was new -- that we could learn together. And that's what we did. We both learned from each other."

How helpful has your doctor been? A lot of people have said that they feel like they don't have any power. Sometimes they feel the doctors don't listen.

No. When I went to my doctor, she told me that she really didn't know a whole lot about HIV, because it was new -- that we could learn together. And that's what we did. We both learned from each other.

Let's go back just a little bit, to 1987. People even now don't want to talk about HIV; but definitely, back then, people didn't like talking about it. You spoke out. What was the reaction from people in your community?

Oh, yeah. I got asked that a lot. Well, even today, people don't believe in HIV. Because they say, "You look so good." I say, "Yeah. That's why I'm telling people. You can look good, and you can feel good, but still be infected." And that's why I tell them they should go get tested -- not only for HIV, but other STDs and high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. That's why I tell people: "Go to the doctor at least once a year and get a physical, and get a blood test."

And so you started speaking out and started doing AIDS work. What kind of work were you doing? Were you part of an organization back then? Or did you just educate people all on your own?

A little of both. I did some church groups. I was going and talking to church groups, especially young people. And also, during the day, I was a volunteer at the American Red Cross for over 20 years doing HIV/AIDS safety classes.

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