The disease has receded from the spotlight, but the HIV infection continues to spread -- and invade the lives of Philadelphians.
“It was in May, a month after my birthday, and I’d been feeling fine,” says Edwards. “I don’t know if it was something in the air or I was around someone who was sick or whatever. But I got really, really sick. With this virus you can feel great one day and be in the hospital the next.”
Edwards hasn’t had to deal with any crises of late. Her T-cell count is up to 140, her doctor recently informed her that her viral load is undetectable and she’s getting married next July to a rangy, athletic-looking guy named Jermaine Hairston who left Philly to brood in Delaware after being diagnosed three years ago.
“I decided to get myself together,” Hairston says of his decision to return and get back on meds. He adds that he’s already suffered some of HIV’s telltale symptoms, including drenching night sweats and severe headaches.
Julio Jackson has suffered worse than sweats and headaches in the 13 years since he learned he had the virus. A 45-year-old Philadelphia Fight intern who hails from West Philly, Jackson visited death’s door in 2002 when he contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, the deadliest of AIDS’ OIs. His T-cell count had fallen to 14 because he’d stopped taking his meds.
“I stopped taking them because I was in denial,” he says. “They kept me in the hospital for about a month. I almost died.”
Jackson, who’s divorced and has a 25-year-old daughter named Lynnette, says his ex-wife passed HIV to him before casually mentioning that he ought to be tested for it four years into their marriage. He believes she knew she was HIV-positive when they met. After testing positive, Jackson fell into a depression, isolating himself and wondering how long he had to live. He’d overhear people making jokes about others who have the virus, making comments like, ‘I hear she got the hiv (rhymes with give),’ and wince inside.
“I would have never been able to do this [interview] a few years back,” he says. For me it was like, ‘Who do I tell? Who can I turn to? Who’s going to want me?’ It’s been a long process for me to accept myself, that I have HIV, and to deal with it and learn that I can live with it if I take care of myself.”
A slight but wiry bearded man who looks like any other fashion-conscious urbanite, Jackson swallows four pills every day that have placed him in the undetectable range. He works out, runs, and now boasts a 590 T-cell count.
“You could say I’m in the same boat Magic Johnson’s in,” he says, smiling.
Jackson has a girlfriend, is planning to enroll in college, maybe to study chemistry, and hopes to land a job in the medical field. He’s planning on sticking around awhile.
So does R. Vincent Johns. He wants to write a novel based on his topsy-turvy life, one that includes coming out at 14, being disowned by his father and stepmother, living on the street, hooking up with a sugar daddy in Charleston, earning a college degree and now squaring off against AIDS.
“Having AIDS doesn’t define me,” he says. “What defines me is that I’m an artist, what defines me is that I’m a survivor, what defines me is that I’m victorious over my situations and able to fix them.” He pauses before adding, “But I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
A stat worth repeating: Some 30,000 Philadelphians are believed to be living with HIV, and perhaps as many as a quarter of them aren’t aware they have it. ■
The African-American woman in the photo looks about 60, maybe 65. Her graying hair in a tidy bun, she wears a neat blue and white silk dress with a bow at the neckline. She tilts her head and gives a melancholy half-smile for the camera. Above her head are the words "I Never Asked. I Wish I Did." Inside the brochure this sweet-looking lady tells her story. She'd been widowed. She began dating a longtime friend. They never discussed sexual history, and because of her age, birth control wasn't an issue. Now she has HIV. It seems strange, even freakish, but it's all too common. HIV/AIDS is the No. 1 killer of black American women between 25 and 34. But the fastest growing segment of HIV incidence is among black women in their 50s and 60s. Grandma has AIDS. Women get together to discuss many different things. We talk about family, we talk about politics, we gossip endlessly. But when it comes to talking about HIV/AIDS and the simple things we can do to prevent it, our mouths are shut. Philadelphia-specific HIV statistics are grave. Averages here are higher than the rest of the nation, especially among women. Philadelphia's response is appropriately targeted, with some of the...
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PW's Music Issue 2014