Charlene, age 54 / Texas, USA

GOAP_CharleneI always knew that there would be a possibility. I had some friends that passed away. I was a intravenous drug user. My lifestyle prior, from ‘80 to ‘88, wasn’t the nicest thing.

But I stepped out on faith and changed that on my own. By 1988 I had changed my whole life around. I got my certification in the medical field. That’s what brought me to working in hospitals and nursing homes. I was a dialysis technician as well. I worked in the serum-precaution area, where people have– were either positive or hepatitis. And a lot of people didn’t want to work in that area. I didn’t have a problem with it. So I was always, like, a caregiver to someone else, and that’s what I still try to do.

And all these years later is when I get a diagnosis.

I was working in the intensive care unit at a hospital, and I was constantly losing weight, and I was getting weaker. I kept having a sore throat, and it would go away, it would come back, so I went to the doctor. They gave me antibiotics but they didn’t test me for HIV. And what happened was, the antibiotics made me sicker. I lost about, hmm… 40 lbs.

And so I was wearing, like, double scrubs to work and I was just really trying to still maintain my life. I didn’t know. So then I was sent to a specialist, and that’s when I was diagnosed with HIV. That was in October of 2003.

I was a technician, and what I did was prep for any procedures that need to be done for the doctors or the nurses. Say, if they’re gonna do catheters or do whatever, I would prep the trays. I would take patients to get CAT scans every morning, because they were all bed-ridden, so I would be pushing a bed and the tubes and everything. So it was pretty strenuous. And I was working, like, 12 hours shifts, you know, so it was really wearing on me…

I continued to work for maybe a couple of weeks. That was all I could stand because I was so sick. I had short-term and long-term disability from my job, but they denied it because they said it was a pre-existing condition. So I was without an income for a while, just waiting for SSI, or something, the disability insurance to kick in. But with me paying into the system like that and them not allowing me to get the money, that was just a waste, you know. I paid in every pay period like I was supposed to, but I was denied access to my short-term disability.

It’ll be nine years in October.

In the beginning, they had to come to my house to see me. So once I got my strength back and got up, I started volunteering, and then, eventually, I started educating myself on HIV. It took me about 2 years for that to happen. So since, like, 2005 I’ve been very active. I’ve worked, I’ve travelled, I’ve gone to different places, I’ve attended different conferences. I’ve even become a LOTUS graduate for WORLD organization.

What I do now, I work for a non-profit organization in Austin, Texas, and I help other people get into care. So the dilemmas that I faced in the beginning? I help other people right now. The agency that I got affiliated with I’m now working for.

I’m an outreach worker. I return clients to care, I try to get them back in the system. I mainly focus on females, but I also do MSM and incarcerated people. If someone is incarcerated and they’re coming back, I get ‘em into care with local agencies around the city.

I’ve seen situations where they were far worse than myself. I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing someone improve. If I could do it, it can be done.  I had a T-cell count of 41, which is actually an AIDS diagnosis. And within a year, I was up to, like, 250. And now I stand at about 900, and I’ve had the non-detectable viral load for four years now. So I’ve done nothing but get stronger.

There are two things: I don’t like my body shape now, because of the fat distribution. And my bones! I’m gonna tell you, my bones ache! I’ve broken each leg: I broke one leg in July of 2009, and one in July of 2010. The bones are real fragile. I don’t have osteoporosis – I’ve never been diagnosed with that. But, they’re frail. They’re very frail. So that, and then, taking medication every day, you know? Sometimes it’s tiring.

I know I’m gonna die. My butt is gonna point to the ground, and I’m gonna die. That’s just automatic.

I look at my six year old granddaughter and it gives me– I want to protect her, you know what I’m saying? My little granddaughter, I talked to her yesterday, and she’s like, “Granny, I miss you, when are you coming home?” You know, that kinda stuff. So, that’s what keeps me going.

I stay busy. I don’t let the HIV/AIDS absorb me, because there are other aspects of my life that are important as well. I do a lot of community work. I stay involved, and I put my face out there, I let people know in my community. And that’s where I was raised all my life, so it’s like, I’m known around the city.

My family, they– ah, man, I’ma tell you, that’s been my biggest support. My whole family – they embraced me. Because I came to them right away. You know, I went to my grandmother, I went to my mama, I gathered my cousins, I gathered my aunts and everybody and I let them know that I’m HIV-positive – no, I actually have an AIDS diagnosis. And they saw me at that point, looking like a rail, and they’ve seen me now, and they’ve seen my activism, they’ve seen my being energized, they see me being active in the community, doing things in my community. So they’ve embraced my whole… thing, and they’ve supported me 110%.

I don’t want to be alone. And I know that I’m NOT alone, but I’m talkin’ about, you know, the “golden years.” That’s something that I look forward to, is meeting someone that can accept me for who I am, my condition or whatever, and be happy.

I’m not tryin’ to make it happen – I think when it’s time it’s gonna come to me. I’m not going out lookin’ for anything. I go to church, I do my thing there, I’m not lookin’ for anyone. And when it’s time it’ll happen. That’s the way I look at it. Yeah. I’m not lookin’ for a darn thing!

It’s a good time for me. It’s a GREAT time for me. I’m happy. I’m not holding a lot of stuff inside, you know. And I try to stay up, so…. I’m HAPPY, you know? I really am, I’m happy. I don’t try to reminisce on too many things that are in the past, I just look forward to the future, whatever it brings. You know, as long as I’m still here, once I’m gone, there’s nothing that can be done, so…