MIAMI — When Tijuana Kelly went to the doctor she expected the visit to be about life. She was three months pregnant and excited about the baby growing in her belly. But instead, she left that day in 2001 consumed with death.
Kelly was visiting a doctor’s office in Stuart at the time. She recalled him asking if she wanted to do a routine HIV test. When the doctor came back to tell her the news that she was HIV positive, Kelly said he was anything but sympathetic.
“The doctor said we don’t help people like you here,” she remembered. “But here is a number. These people can help you and he walked out. No nurse ever came in to console me.”
Kelly assumed she was going to die and that her baby would too. Her mind turned to memories the Uncle she lost to AIDS. “I was still thinking of the ’80s when I saw my uncle with the lesions on his hands,” said Kelly. “I’m like, wait a minute, I never did any drugs.”
Eventually she determined she was infected by her boyfriend, the father of her son. But the blame didn’t solve the problem. It was Kelly’s determination to turn it all around and seek quality medical care.
Because she was diagnosed early, she was able to keep her viral load low with medications. By the time she was nine months pregnant the virus was undetectable in her body. In fact her son was born negative.
Now 12 years later, Kelly is healthy. Her viral load is very low. She credits modern medicine and her faith in God. Kelly, a tall, slim and beautiful woman, often uses her looks and experience to educate others. She has spoken to Natoinal Football League players about HIV and AIDS. But she has been known to leave her surprise diagnosis for later in the conversation.
When she met with the football players many of them were hitting on her — only to be shocked by her announcement as she began her speech to tell them her story. Linda Williams can relate to Kelly. Three years ago she was diagnosed with HIV. She said she got it from her fiancé, a church minister.“I found out after I approached him with it and told him about it,” she remembered. “He was in denial. I knew he took all these pills. But I never knew he had AIDS. I later found out his first wife passed away and his second wife passed away and he didn’t tell me any of this.”
Like Kelly, Williams turned her story into a lesson for others and began to do community outreach and AIDS education. “I feel like I was one of the chosen ones to reach out to others,” she said.
Both women are now patients at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI) and help to raise awareness for HIV testing, treatment and even protection. CHI provides individuals and families with HIV testing, counseling and more at all of its nine regional health care centers. The nonprofit also gives those families medical, dental care, case management services, nutrition counseling and medication assistance.
Kelly and Williams attended CHI’s free testing day in June as part of National HIV testing day. Hundreds of people came out to the Doris Ison Health Care Center and the Martin Luther King Health Care Center to get tested. As Kelly and Williams know all too well, the test, a simple swab of the cheek, can forever change a person life. If detected early it can mean the difference between life and death. “I feel great,” said Williams. “Its barely detectable. The virus is there. But I’m healthy. I still live my same lifestyle. But now I wish I can get out there and let the world know to get tested. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed. Do the right thing and get tested.”
It’s a major need here in South Florida, where Miami-Dade, for example, is ranked number one in the nation for the highest number of new AIDS cases per capita in the United States and second in the nation for the number of children with AIDS.
More than 125,000 people are believed to be living with HIV in Florida. Even though African Americans make up just 20 percent of the population in Miami-Dade County, they account for more than 50 percent of HIV/AIDS cases.
“The numbers are terrible,” said Brodes Hartley, CHI president and CEO. “This is not the way we want to be number one. The resources are here. We need to make sure people use them. It starts with using protection and the responsibility continues with getting tested.”
•Picture above Tijuana Kelly