AIDS Lives in Philadelphia

The disease has receded from the spotlight, but the HIV infection continues to spread -- and invade the lives of Philadelphians.

By F.H. Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Dec. 8, 2009

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“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. ■

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. drnusa said... on Dec 9, 2009 at 09:53AM

“Good timely article! I learned alot from it and it was well written I hope everyone reads it . I had some absolutely horrible and unforgettable experiences with AIDS many years ago as a medical intern. We gotta stop the spread of this virus!!!!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Dec 9, 2009 at 11:41AM

“I am R. Vincent Johns, i just want to say thanks for doing this. People need to know we the infected look just like everyone else these days and please never let your guard down.”

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3. Mom said... on Dec 9, 2009 at 03:20PM

“Robert you have always been a strong person you are a fighter much like your mother, you have always found a way to come out ok. Just know this I have always supported you even when you did'nt think I would or could. I may yell at frist but thats me. But I always come around. I have loved you from the second you were put in my arms March 26 1981@1104 pm. I will always be here for you.I love you my SON, Love Mama”

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4. Christina said... on Dec 9, 2009 at 08:19PM

“Vincent, I think its great that your sharing your story.
I remember the day you told me that you found out. It was right after i suggested that maybe you get tested for it because i thought that the scabs you had might have been a symptom of aids. And i remember you pulling me off to the side and you told me and up until that point i have never met anyone with aids and i felt really horrible because your such a great person and i never thought that it could happen to a friend of mine.
But R.Vincent Johns, you will rise above it all... i know your strong and an extremely unique and strong willed individual.
-nok-”

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5. brother said... on Dec 9, 2009 at 08:56PM

“robert your one of if not the strongest person i know. i love and miss you. i know you will make it through all the hard times. you have done it time and time again. love ya big bro”

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6. Anonymous said... on Dec 10, 2009 at 08:25AM

“Vinny Vin, I'm proud of you, there is nothing that comes at you in life that you don't overcome. I'm glad you're talking about this and making people aware. I hope people benefit from this article, you are a constant source of inspiration to me. <3 Vanny Van”

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7. Friend of Team Gay said... on Dec 10, 2009 at 12:41PM

“Keep smiling, gorgeous!”

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8. Cyd said... on Dec 10, 2009 at 01:34PM

“Thank you to everyone that shared their stories. It is important that people know more so they can do more to protect themselves and others.”

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