I Tested HIV Positive in a Prison Reception Center, and It Saved My Life

Part of the Series Day One With HIV

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Prison saved my life. In 1994 I was given a sentence of 50 years to life for burglary under the California Three Strikes Sentencing Law. I did not have HIV prior to prison. Actually, I should say that I hadn't tested. While at a prison reception center I decided to take an HIV test.

I looked healthy and felt good. But I tested because I was a drug user -- the worst drug you could ever start. I was a heroin addict for many years before I went to prison. At the time of my arrest in December 1994, I was already 36, and I had been using a needle for heroin. At times I was also sharing a needle that others had used.

While at the reception center for two months, I kept thinking about the people with whom I had shared a needle. I had heard that one of the guys had tested positive for HIV. I took the test and a couple weeks later I was called to the clinic. The nurse, in a very low tone, said "you have tested positive for HIV." I had no words. She asked if I was OK. I remember thinking, "who asks a person a question like that?" But by all accounts, I wasn't fazed by the results.

She also said that my T cell count was 222 and that I needed to take medication. My viral load was almost 700,000. I didn't know what any of these numbers meant. I just wanted to get out of the clinic and lay down.

I was put on AZT and Videx. The Videx had a horrible taste. I had a lot of headaches in the beginning, but for the most part I had no problems with taking the medication.

And I didn't tell anyone at the prison other than my cellie who already had HIV. As I look back now, I find it strange that I was put in a cell with someone who had HIV without knowing this ahead of time.

I was moved to another prison after reception where there were a lot of people who had HIV. A lot of them I had met over the years of going to prison.

The doctors at this prison were very nice and gave me a lot of hope that I could live a long time with HIV. I stayed on the same HIV meds for another three years. Then I was sent to another prison because I had an incident with another incarcerated person.

This is where the problems came with my HIV. It wasn't the medication; it was the doctors. They were not at all professional and at times didn't seem to know what they were doing. I didn't feel they cared. I was just a paycheck. My T cells were in the 300 range and viral load around 50,000.

Just Nobody's Business

I never thought about being HIV positive, and I still don't. It's just something that has become a part of who I am. The only times I thought about it were when people in the prison would start rumors about so and so. But I always felt that I didn't have to disclose to anyone about it, because it's just nobody's business. The only way I did disclose it is if I was going to be in a relationship with a man.

In 2004 I switched the meds I was on to Epivir, Viread and Sustiva. I could not handle the Sustiva. I could not sleep, and when I did I would have the most horrible dreams.

In 2005 I went on Kaletra and Videx and kept the Epivir. My T cells stayed about the same, around 300-400. In 2008, I came to the prison that I've been at for over eight years now. My first labs were pretty good: 525 T cells and viral load undetectable.

In 2009 I became very ill, so sick that I had to spend 11 days in an outside hospital. But it wasn't from HIV -- I had a urinary infection from a high dose of spironolactone. Also, I have always been very active during my years in. So that has played a huge part in staying healthy.

The facility that I am in now is a medical facility. I wanted to do all I could to really be healthy. So I went to the library and started reading about vitamins. I take a vitamin E and vitamin C tablet every day.

In 2012 I kept getting diarrhea for some reason. I had tests done and they showed that my kidneys were abnormal. I was put on Kaletra and Epzicom, and that's what I still take. Just last month, the latest labs showed my T cells are almost 800 and I still have no detectable viral load.

Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to editor@thebody.com. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.