Ron: I found out my status when I was incarcerated, as a result of seeing a dentist. The dental hygienist dropped one of the tools and it pricked her on the leg. And as a result of their protocol they asked everybody who had saw the dentist that day to take an HIV test.
There was no support whatsoever during the incarceration. Basically, they removed me from general population into isolation and left me there without any information, not even telling me that I was positive. They just say, “Listen. We are putting you in a medical unit,” and they put me in the isolation cell. And because they have a sign on the door say, “Caution: Bodily Fluids”, then I start going back in my mind over the last two weeks, and it dawned on me, you know, I had taken an HIV test.
I had befriended some nurses, and I could see that “I feel sorry for you” look on they face. All of those things over the last two or three weeks started going over in my head while I was in that isolation tank. So I put the two and two together. Someone from the health department finally came – it was probably two weeks – and finally said, “Hey, you know, you tested positive.” But real support came after I got out of incarceration, which was probably a couple of months later.
At first, it was like, you know I’m just gon’ die – people didn’t know a lot, it was still fairly new. There was only one HIV drug still at that time, there was AZT. But I educated myself and I started doing the work. Maybe three years later, I got a job working in HIV prevention and education and eventually I became quite a advocate. I went from workin’ for someone to startin’ an agency called Street Works. I was infected by injection drug use, so I decided I needed to help injection drug users. We worked the streets at night to prevent HIV, to reduce high-risk behaviors in people who are at high risk for HIV and STDs.
Knock on wood, I have been extremely lucky and blessed that I’ve had no opportunistic infections. I’ve not been hospitalized. I’ve worked a whole 20 years. Got a beautiful wife. I mean, life has been great.
Milagros: It was a very poor decision to fall in love with my boss. It wasn’t even that I fell in love with my boss, I guess I had been in love with the person he was. I didn’t see him as a man, you know? I was working at Nashville Cares when I first met him. Later on, I went to work for him, as a senior medical case manager. Work for him about a year and a half before we start going out. We start going out and immediately we get married. Immediately. Because I knew him, I knew what he was all about. I respected him and admire him a lot, so… When the opportunity came, it was the natural thing to get married.
Ron: The thing is, we both were so passionate about the work that we do. She works 60, 70 hours a week, I work 60, 70 hours a week, we had no social life. We both was very– we don’t have no time to look for anybody else. So, it’s like… we was a perfect match for each other. Later on, she would tell me that her clients would tell her, “You know I know this guy, and you two would make a perfect match.” Waaaaaay before we ever even met, because of our passion for the work.
Milagros: ‘Cause I would work directly with former prostitutes, and they will tell me how he rescued them. So I totally admire him and I was totally in love with his work, because I would ask, “How did you get out of the street?” “Oh, Ron got me out the street,” you know. “He picked me up like he was a John. He told me, ‘I want you to do this for me, and I’m gonna pay you this amount of money.’ And once I agree to it, you know, to be with him without protection, immediately he start ministering to me. He gave me the money and immediately start telling me, ‘You’re it. Today, at this moment, if I have acted upon this, you will be infected with HIV.’” And he’ll be ministering to them like that.
And he rescued many, many prostitutes that were my clients in the other agency. They would all tell me stories, and I was totally smitten by this guy who will be running around picking up prostitutes, telling this story. Or he will be running around, saying, “Hey, what are you doing? You don’t be on this corner. You need to call your children. You need to call your mother. Your mother is asking for you. You matter to your mother, to your sister. You matter to your daughter, and you matter to me.”
So to go work for him was a great honor. Do you understand? And eventually when the time came for me to date him it wasn’t even like we went on a date. He needed to go to his class reunion and he didn’t have anybody, so he took me. (laughs) And that’s how we came to pass. He left me alone and he danced with all the girls all night long. And when I was looking at him, they say, “Oh! She is dancing with your man!” And I thought about it, I say, “Is that my man?” And at that moment it dawn on me, “Oh my God! I’m on a date!” Do you understand?” “And this is my man!” And, the same night, he gave me the ring. So it was fairly fast. It was like a nightmare more than a dream.
Ron: When it’s all said and done, I get to go home to my beautiful wife, and she makes me happy, she encourages me, and she’s so spiritual, and she always has a positive attitude no matter what the situation is. Any negative attitude she will turn into a positive attitude, and that is what keeps me going.
Milagros: He also have NA, Narcotics Anonymous. It’s very important to him. He gets inspired by newcomers every week. He have an opportunity to mentor people, and that give him a purpose in life. Another thing that give him a purpose at life is getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to answer the phone and give someone clean needles so they could get high. I don’t approve, because I’m Catholic, but that’s his mission, and that’s what he live for. He figure eventually, when they get tired of being in that circle of life, they will come to me for help. And that’s what he hoping for. As soon as he give a clean needle he have that face, that transformation within him. The conviction that he have done something important, you know, to reduce the risk of spreading the disease.
Ron: I went from being an active drug user to helping people get from where I was to turning their life around, and that is the greatest joy a person can get. To go home, lay in the bed at night, and being able to say to yourself, “You know? I made a difference in somebody life today.” And somebody coming up to you, a year later, “You know, if it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be where I am.” I mean, me? It’s just… totally transformed me. So I went from devil to angel, it seem like. And that’s been so fulfilling for me. I enjoy it. I enjoy it.
And this lady? I’ve never met anybody more caring than her. You know, I was always brought up with one rule, and one rule only: self preservation is the law of the land. Her? It’s always about somebody else, she ALWAYS think about somebody else, and think about her self last. So, it’s kind of like I tell people all the time: what I hate about her is what I love about her. Right now, if you said, honestly, “Oooooh! This is such a beautiful shawl!” You know what she’ll probably say? “Oh, you can have it. I know where to get another one.”
Milagros: I have to say that people who have lived with HIV for a long time, like Ron? Have had experiences that we have never been exposed to. They have more compassion, more patience, more endurance, and their capacity to love is more intense. And you probably will have a better person by your side, because those experiences have made them a better person. I mean, if you think about the Ron before HIV? We would have never crossed paths. Ever. But the person that he is now…
Ron: You know, I’ve lived my life, and if I were to go tomorrow, I’ve had a great life, and I wouldn’t change anything about it, because I had to do everything to get to where I am today. ALL of my life experiences brought me to where I am today. You know, I may have made some different decisions, you know, some of the people I hurt I may not have hurt. But I needed all of those life experiences to get to where I am today. And I love the person that those experiences has made me today.
My concern now is growing old with somebody, and enjoying life. That’s it. You know, I know is gonna become a time when I’m not able to do this work anymore, and I’m gonna need somebody to share that leisure time with, and I got this beautiful young lady here to do that with. So that’s all I worry about now, and that’s not a worry, that’s more something I’m looking forward to.
Milagros: We’re gonna go to Latin America. Yes. We would like to start what we had here? We would like to take that either to Guatemala or Bolivia.
Ron: I’ll be sharing her vision then. It won’t be my vision anymore, it’ll be hers.