|Ruben Rodriguez (right)|
Rodriguez spent most of his life in and out of the prison system, staying in at least seven different facilities. After his third strike for attempted burglary, he was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was on parole for work release in 1994 and was discharged in 1996, the same year he began taking HIV meds.
Today, Rodriguez lives in Queens, New York, and works for the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that helps ex offenders back on their feet through programs and education.
Rodriguez shared the June 2001 cover of POZ with Anthony Salandra and Marsha Burnett, who both have passed away. To complement the September 2013 POZ magazine cover story on longtime survivors, we caught up with Rodriguez.
Out of the three people on our June 2001 cover, you are the only one remaining. What are your thoughts of being a long-term survivor?
I think of how blessed I am that I am still alive. I count my blessings each day and hope that others would do likewise.
Does being a long-term survivor come with any unique challenges and benefits?
One benefit is that I am still alive. But the greatest challenges come from the long-term effects of taking the medicine. It really takes a toll on you sometimes. My age could have a lot to do with it, but for the most part, it’s the long-term effects of taking the medicines. I tribute a lot of my weight and muscle loss to that.
What has given you encouragement to make it this far? Any advice for others?
My attitude in general has helped me through. I don’t let HIV/AIDS bring me down. I am educated and know what I have to do. A positive mental attitude and adherence to the treatment can make for a lot for encouragement. I also do not drink and smoke.
As for advice, I would have to say it is best to maintain a positive attitude, attend regular checkups and just enjoy life while you can. That’s what worked for me all this time.
How is your health holding up today?
I have good days and then I have better days, but I am still blessed. I have gone through treatment for lymphoma cancer and also prostate cancer. I have hepatitis C but am not doing any treatment for it, because my doctor hasn’t found a need to put me on medication for that—I get my blood work done regularly, and my doctor sees that I can live without the medication.
Right now, I have an eye problem and am due for surgery in the beginning of August. But other than that, I am able to get up and get to work every day, so I would say that I am doing pretty good.
Can you tell us more about your work with HIV in prisons?
When I was in prison, I founded PACE [Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education] and was able to participate in a lot of other programs. When I came home, I knew that I wanted to continue the work. I went to the Fortune Society and was offered a position to be a bilingual counselor.
I accepted the position for a year, until I decided to move on to the Osborne Association for two years, where I supervised the HIV/AIDS hotline. It was a hotline for people with the virus who needed help adjusting to life out of prison. I went to Virginia for a few years, but moved back to New York, where I [am continuing] my work for the Fortune Society, as a peer-to-peer supervisor.
I like the work I do now, because it allows me to help others in a sense of giving back.