When Tijuana Kelly was diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, a doctor told her, “We don’t deal with people like you.”
Although she displayed no symptoms of the disease, Kelly, then 28 and living in Stuart, was tested during the first trimester of her pregnancy. “The hospital asked if I wanted to have the test done and I said yes. I had no idea it would be positive,” she said.
When she received the diagnosis that she was HIV-positive, “they basically blurted it out,” she said. “There was no counseling, no dialogue, only a number to call. All I knew then is that I was going to die and that the process was going to be quick,” Kelly said in an interview. “So, in a panic, I sent my three children to live with relatives while I sought counseling.”
Now 38, Kelly, founder of Prime Experience LLC, an organization that supports and educates people with HIV, spoke to a group of about 25 women at “SOS: Sistas Organizing to Survive for Caribbean Sistas,” a discussion to educate women about the virus that causes AIDS and how to educate others about it.
The panel discussion took place March 26 at God’s Amazing Grace Outreach Ministries, 285 NW 199th St., Miami Gardens.
Throughout her pregnancy, Kelly said, she was prescribed azidothymidine, or AZT, a drug used to delay the development of AIDS, but stopped after her son was born. “It was just to ensure that the baby would be negative – and he was,” she said.
Kelly took AZT again five years later when she became pregnant with her daughter, who also was born HIV-negative. She is no longer on the medication.
“I’m healthy and the disease has not progressed,” she said. “No one can explain it.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site, HIV testing in Florida for pregnant women is part of the standard prenatal panel and is done at the initial visit and between 28 and 32 weeks of pregnancy.
Statistics show that women who are HIV positive, and are in treatment, are giving birth to babies who do not have the virus, said Kim Jolly, a nurse practitioner and advocate for HIV/AIDS education.
“If you are treated throughout the pregnancy, 90 percent of the babies are born negative,” she said.
Kelly said people do not ask about the status of others and will not speak up and say, “I have AIDS.”
“I could live my life and never say a word and no one will even ask – and that’s scary,” she said.
She said she contracted the disease from a man she was with for eight years.
“My self-esteem was low, the relationship was abusive. I met him in a nightclub and never asked if he was [HIV] positive or if he had been tested. I wasn’t educated,” Kelly said.
The man knew he was positive but never admitted to or discussed his status, she said. “People just don’t want rejection,” she added.
Stephanie Vernot, an HIV/AIDS education advocate said HIV is tied to self-esteem. In Haitian families, she said, “we don’t say ‘I love you’ enough and that contributes to a young girl’s low self-esteem. When a man shows them attention, calls them sweet names and says, ‘I love you,’ they get mushy and soft.”
HIV educator Elizabeth Murray, who was a member of the panel, said that she hears mothers talk about how they teach their 10- and 11-year-old daughters to negotiate sex.
“They should not be thinking about that. Instead, they should be taught to respect themselves,” Murray said.
The highest rates of reported HIV/AIDS cases in the Bahamas are among females ages 19 to 25 and males ages 40 to 55, according to Jolly. “Sex and sexuality were always taboo,” she said. “Even now those conversations are not being had. Children need to be taught to be in healthy relationships.”
Christina Morrow, who represented the Miami-Dade Health Department on the panel, said she sees more 14 and 15 year-olds with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as syphilis and gonorrhea. The typical reasons they give for having contracted STDs, she said, are “the condom broke or fell off or that they simply trusted their partner.”
“We teach them that they need to be more responsible for their actions,” Morrow told the gathering.
When asked about sexual responsibility when both partners are positive, Jolly said that condoms should be worn at all times.
“You can become re-infected,” she said. “Even if you are on medication, one partner may carry a different strain of the virus and the bacteria can be different. Your medication can be working but may not be enough to fight that strain.”
Kelly said that she has never been angry with the man who infected her. “I am responsible for my own life,” she said, “and gave that power to someone else. Now, I am focused on living.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net