I Tested HIV Positive in a Prison Reception Center, and It Saved My Life
Part of the Series Day One With HIV
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.
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