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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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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Monique (South Catolina) Tue., Aug. 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm EDT
I love this article. Congrats to the lady he is engaged to. May you continue to be blessed. When I saw that this was coming from a heterosexual man in the south, spoke volumes to me. I am a positive lady from the south and, you never hear of any heterosexual mem reported to be positive in my area. I have a wonderful HIV case manger and I tease her about finding me a date. She always say that she can find me one but I would have to share him with another man. (jokingly) so, in other words heterosexual men don't reveal there status in small towns.
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Comment by: apple Wed., Jan. 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm EST
you r a great person.
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Comment by: Dewayne (Oxford, MS) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm EST
this story is humbuling, of course. I wish I could give him a big hug because i understand alot of these feeling myself. I also have HIV in a small town in Miss. and it is about being educated and taking a stand. You can have HIV or HIV will have you! In the very end you only have two choices, laugh or cry and in my fight I have choose to laugh and keep on going. I admire his passion for life to keep on going because things were much more difficult 20 years ago. Strange as it is I also have a Nurse Practictioner that came from the area that he is from and still to this day there is not alot of resources for people with HIV. Sadly, the CDC labels miss as and epidemic state and there is possibility for every 4 people that knows they have HIV 1 does not. Good luck and much love in the days to come.

Dewayne
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Comment by: Susan (london - England) Wed., Dec. 8, 2010 at 4:22 am EST
Hello James,
I wondered if you have had any communication with people who are trying to educate faith based organisations in the UK.
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Comment by: Pamela Bender (San Antonio, Texas) Tue., Dec. 7, 2010 at 7:47 pm EST
James Bender is my brother and I'm very proud of the work he has done and is doing to educate others about HIV/AIDS. Over the years I've seen James deal with complications brought about by the disease but I've never seen him give up on his continuing fight and passion for the cause. I'm proud to call James my brother and my friend, the love I have for him goes beyond a diagnosis. I pray God's continued blessings in his life so that he may continue to spread his knowledge and experiences with others as he has done over the years.
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Comment by: Mike Bryson (Indianapolis, IN) Mon., Dec. 6, 2010 at 4:15 pm EST
Brother James,

I'd just like to time this time to copmliment you on your courage, confidence and attitude about "Living" with HIV. I am not living with HIV myself, however I have worked in the HIV field since 1987. Now as the HIV Educator for the Ryan White Service Program I will use your story as support for the facts about living with HIV and as inspiration for those I work with everyday. I work with people newly diagnosed with HIV and those who have known their HIV status for years. A key part of my job is to get newly diagnosed into treatment and help others return to treatment or stay connected with care. I constantly strive to help others understand the importance of "medication adherence". If it is OK with you I will use your article in my HIV Education presentation that I conduct anywhere from the prisons I go into and the "Fathers Resource" programs (just to mention a few of the programs I conduct on-going sessions at)which target young African American males, age 16-28, who are now fathers and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. So many of them have children by one or more women and think nothing bad will ever happen to them. Again, James as an HIV Educator I appriciate your story and salute you as a human being and a very producty member of our society. Keep up the good work. Stay strong and most importantly stay on your medications.

Mike Bryson, MSW
HIV Educator & Risk Reduction Coordinator
Marion County Health Department
317-221-4620
lbryson@hhcorp.org
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Comment by: Joanie S. (Newport, Oregon) Mon., Dec. 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm EST
Excellent interview! I hear what James Bender is saying. I work as a nurse in Public Health and I see the stigma surrounding HIV. People are afraid. Teenagers especially, act like if they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist. It will never happen to me attitude. I try to educate the best I can and encourage testing and prevention. Thank you.
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