April 18, 2014
Orocovis, Puerto Rico
Positive since 2003
Fear? Cowardice? Afraid to confront my reality? All of these things were my life before I was diagnosed with HIV. Even though my risk behaviors and physical signs from my body should have alerted me that I was infected, I was irresponsible and ignored these signals. It’s not something I'm proud of.
I was diagnosed with AIDS in October 2003. My physical deterioration was so advanced and so obvious that my family, friends and colleagues—at the time I worked at the Puerto Rico Medical Center—had noticed. Not to mention my "friends" at the bars. The stigma and rejection I experienced by our gay brothers was the worst of all.
Confronting HIV/AIDS also made me confront my family. And it especially made me confront my risk behaviors: unprotected sex, one-night stands, etc. Even though the information about HIV/AIDS existed, I did not pay attention.
By the time I was diagnosed, I was at an advanced stage of AIDS. For almost a year prior, I had experienced symptoms associated with AIDS: rapid weight loss, constant diarrhea, hives, itchy skin, night sweats, extremely high fever, yellow skin, loss of concentration, physical exhaustion without any apparent reason and countless other symptoms that I cannot remember. But I ignored them all.
About a month after my diagnosis, I was hospitalized. The infectious disease specialist who treated me was a young doctor with extensive experience treating patients with HIV and AIDS. He was direct and clear and told me and my family that my prognosis was not favorable. He said that the likelihood that I would leave the hospital alive was 50/50. I was discharged within a week, but given intravenous treatment at home.
In the next six months, I went back into the hospital three more times. I had two chemotherapy treatments for Kaposi sarcoma, took pills to keep the virus at bay and took more pills to help the side effects from the HIV drugs. I had more intravenous treatments at home. During that time, my family and I did not have high hopes that I would survive the crisis.
After many long months, I began my miraculous recovery. Of course much is owed to following my medical treatments, mainly my antiretroviral therapy. But I also owe my recovery to the unconditional support of my family, who suffered as well, but never stopped supporting me. And part of my recovery was due to the force of constant prayer and trust in the Supreme Being. Spirituality—a part of our lives that many abandon by wrapping themselves in other things—saved me. I do not judge anyone, I'm just telling my story. I’m thankful for the pastor of my Catholic Church. He never blamed me for my conduct or my sexuality—he just gave me his support and help.
I have now lived with HIV/AIDS for over ten years. I live with HIV-associated complications, which have arisen due to the long-term use of antiretroviral drugs. I suffer from peripheral neuropathy, lipodystrophy, loss of muscle mass, osteopenia and osteoarthritis. This is not just an inventory of the comorbidities I have. It’s a reminder that although HIV is a condition which is considered chronic due to life-prolonging treatments, the long-term consequences can be as difficult as the diagnosis itself.
Despite everything I've been through living with HIV and AIDS, I am now in a great state of physical and mental wellness. Even better than before I was infected.
My message to everyone is this: To live without the discrimination, stigma, rejection and abuse, we must be responsible with our sexuality and cherish and protect our partners. An HIV-positive diagnosis is not the end of the world. It should be seen as an opportunity to refocus your efforts in another direction. Do not hesitate to seek help and services within your community—there are plenty of resources. Seek a support system, whether it is from your relatives—you may be surprised what wonderful support they give—or someone else. There are community-based organizations that are there to help. As well as spiritual groups, whatever your beliefs are.
The AIDS epidemic is getting closer to an end, although much research is still needed. I see HIV/AIDS as an opportunity to put perspective into our lives. To reconsider what we want to accomplish. As I heard in a play some years ago: "Nobody dies of four letters (AIDS), we are people living with three letters (HIV).”
And if you are living with HIV, you can live a positive and a full life.
What three adjectives best describe you?
Responsible, humble, caring
What is your greatest achievement?
Overcoming an advanced stage of AIDS and the stigma and discrimination. Being a HIV/AIDS prevention community educator and advocate to under-served rural communities
What is your greatest regret?
No regrets. Life has ups and downs and each is a learning opportunity.
What keeps you up at night?
Not accomplishing every small goal for the previous day
If you could change one thing about living with HIV, what would it be?
I wish I'd overcome stigma and discrimination earlier after my AIDS diagnosis.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Get involved. Become an advocate. Be active. Inspire other people with HIV/AIDS.
What person in the HIV/AIDS community do you most admire?
One of my best friends, José Diaz, who keeps encouraging me to participate in as many HIV-related activities as I can
What drives you to do what you do?
Empowering other persons with HIV and encouraging them to have an active involvement with their own health care. Also sharing accurate information to clarify HIV misconceptions
What is your motto?
I am HIV-positive and I live a full and positive life. You can too.
If you had to evacuate your house immediately, what is the one thing you would grab on the way out?
My laptop so I can continue my voluntary HIV/AIDS community education efforts. Almost all my resources are stored on it.
If you could be any animal, what would you be? And why?
A lion. The lion cares for his loved ones, no matter what challenges he faces.
Search: Angel Hernandez, Orocovis, Puerto Rico
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