February 1996, four years after being given my HIV diagnosis, I found myself lying in a hospital bed and hearing that I now had AIDS. My CD4 count was 131. I needed to add more medication. When I was initially diagnosed in 1992, I had a CD4 count of 896 and my first doctor put me on AZT (Retrovir, zidovudine) monotherapy. After a friend found an infectious disease specialist, I was switched to Zerit (stavudine, d4T) and Epivir (3TC, lamivudine).
Now lying in the hospital, my doctor came in and said there was this new drug available called Crixivan (indinavir) and he strongly recommended that I add this to my current regime. My viral load was 159,000 and these new meds had shown that they could reduce the virus in my system, therefore prolonging my life. So of course I said yes. By August, my viral load was undetectable, less than 200, and my CD4 count was finally up over 200.
My medication journey since the beginning has been varied and tough and full of side effects, but I held the attitude that without them I would not be here. I have been determined to fight this since the beginning.
After years of Crixivan and drinking lots of water and it interfering with my quality of life, I asked my doctor if we could switch to a twice-a-day regimen. I tried several regimens that were all successful in keeping my HIV in check; I just couldn't handle the side effects. Finally, six years ago, I found the regimen that works. My HIV is undetectable, less than 20, and my CD4 count is over 1,000.
A few years ago I started to wonder about switching or stopping meds for a while. Then I met the man who would become my husband. He is HIV negative and I know that keeping my viral load down is crucial to maintaining a healthy sex life and reducing the risk of transmission to him. The side effects are manageable and I am here, 21 years later, because of these medications. It was the smartest decision I've made.
Shannon Southall is the executive director and medical care manager at Rocky Mountain CARES, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Denver, Colo. She's also an expert in TheBody.com's "Ask the Experts" Forum on Safe Sex and HIV Prevention.
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