Last month I celebrated twenty-two years since the day I found out I was HIV positive. My long-term memory is so shot but I do remember a lot of things about that day. It's a date that never goes unmarked by me. It was a cold, rainy afternoon in Lancaster, PA. I was scheduled to work the evening shift at Community Hospital in the ICU as usual. The Employee Health Department had called me the day before and told me to stop by and get my test results from the needle stick injury I had received approximately six months earlier, on Sept 9, 1992. I was undergoing routine post-exposure testing. This was no big deal. Once I cleared this hurdle I would have one more test to go at the year mark. It was that simple.
To work I went -- nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to prepare for. The moment I stepped into the office however, I knew. I took one look at the receptionist's face and I knew. Hustled into the small office, now unable to breathe and feeling the room spinning, I don't even remember how the Employee Health nurse formed the words "you are HIV positive." I don't remember what I said. I don't remember exactly what I felt. I remember sitting on a small uncomfortable orange chair staring out of a window at a grey sky and thinking "oh shit they are going to stone me, people are going to hate me, I am going to be a leper, my life is over."
The minutes in that office felt like hours. My breath just couldn't come easy enough, my head just wouldn't stop spinning and the nurse just wouldn't stop talking. Finally she gave me a sheet of paper with an Infectious Disease doctor's name and number on it and she told me I had an appointment for next week. She told me I was being put on emergency sick leave from the hospital. She told me I was probably not going to return to bedside nursing. She was asking for a list of my sexual partners. She wanted me to call someone to have them come and drive me home. She wanted me to know that she would call and follow up with me and that everything was going to be OK. She wanted to know if I could hear her.
I remember taking the paper and telling her I'd make some calls. I remember agreeing to have her phone my roommate/best friend who graciously in a very confused state came to that small office to find me sitting almost catatonic and picked me up and took me home. I promised on my way out I'd send her the list of sexual partners and yes I understood they would need to be tested. My head hurt. My back was aching and I remember being really really thirsty.
We made the quick drive back to our townhouse in silence. What is there to discuss when you are 23 and you think your life is over? What do you say? Who do you call? I was sitting there with my best friend in the whole world and we were quiet. I think we were both just too stunned to speak; the employee health nurse had filled her in and she knew nothing about HIV so she was scared and had her own questions. She was given a pamphlet on handling a person with HIV. It said it was OK to hug me and touch me and be normal with me but really? Was that what this was gonna be about? Was this how I was gonna have to live my life? Have pamphlets on hand for everyone I love to educate them on how to simply live with me? The whole thing was so frightening and overwhelming I just wanted to crawl in a hole and die.
I had two very important phone calls to make. The first was to my boyfriend. He was an Air Force guy stationed in Dover, Delaware, and we had been dating and getting really serious. So serious that he had informally proposed just a few weeks ago and I had excitedly accepted! We were waiting on buying the ring but we knew we wanted to be together. He was my second sexual partner out of only two in my life! I loved him with my whole heart and he knew that I had been exposed and was getting tested but we truthfully had not discussed the what-ifs along the way. We hadn't focused on the possibilities. I knew he was in for a shock. I didn't know what to say so I picked up the phone and I just cried and cried and cried. Somewhere through my tears I ended our relationship. I begged him to leave to start anew with someone else. I called off any sort of engagement. I basically tossed him away and vehemently insisted it was over.
Three hours later he was at my doorstep. He would not take no for an answer. He insisted on going to the Employee Health Center and getting tested. He insisted on staying by my side. He insisted on doing this as a team. Twenty-two years later he has not wavered. Testing negative, he remains negative today. The father of my children, he has always been the soldier by my side through the good, bad and the ugly. HIV has not torn us a part; it has only made us stronger.
He never needed a pamphlet on how to treat me. He let his heart lead the way. I am forever grateful and blessed to be his. He has taught me to love unconditionally.
Lastly I had to tell my parents. That call was the hardest to make. I come from a large Roman Catholic family. In my family when calling home with news, Mom answers the phone usually and when its important Dad gets on the phone as well and then it's show time -- news is told. They were quiet on the other end. They were calm. They were collected. Very little emotion -- that's their style. They took it all in and then said they would like to come visit in a week or two. I agreed and did give them permission to share the news with my sisters. I relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. I'm really not sure what did run through their minds but HIV was not a topic I'm sure they ever thought they would be discussing at their dinner table and at least not in the lifetime of their oldest daughter. They soon called back with the name and number of a lawyer. I expected that. Then they called again with the name and number of an HIV specialist in Philadelphia, about two hours away. I expected that as well. The wheels of research and action had begun at my house. The birth of action and reaction had occurred, that's in my blood. That's how I too handle stress; I was taught that when adversity strikes don't coil up in a ball -- strike back.
Living with HIV for the past twenty-two years, I have so many lessons learned with many hard knocks along the way! I've lost too many friends and acquaintances to the disease itself and a few more simply because of their own reaction to it. I have triumphed over insurmountable odds when it has come to creating, building and raising our family, completing my higher education and sustaining myself in an ever-changing workforce until I finally accepted my disability status in 2007. I continue to evolve as a person living with AIDS. My life is full and content. I am blessed and I look forward to another twenty-two years with my husband, best friends and family by my side.
Until Next Time,