United in hope
MSU, E.L. communities honor Worlds AIDS day on Wednesday
Herman Young is HIV positive — and he wants the world to know it.
Young accepted his status from the very beginning. After all, he said living with the disease still means he’s living.
After a dangerous combination of cholesterol medicine and anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV sent the Lansing man into acute liver failure and a month-long coma in 2006, Young was put on the liver transplant list at the University of Michigan Transplant Center.
Nine hours later, Young received a call — they had found him a liver.
One day and a new liver later, Young became the first HIV positive person in the state of Michigan to receive a liver transplant successfully.
“My liver is in amazing shape now,” Young said. “My numbers are down. Unfortunately there are not as many that are that fortunate.”
Soft amber candlelight illuminated the faces of the more than 50 Lansing and East Lansing residents gathered at the Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, early Wednesday after they listened to Young and others speak. Similar candles again lit the faces of about 20 MSU students Wednesday evening at the rock on Farm Lane.
From a local man living in fear of his children discovering his HIV positive status, to a woman in Africa who contracted the disease after being sexually assaulted, East Lansing and MSU remembered those who have been affected by HIV/AIDS on Wednesday, which marked the 22nd annual World AIDS Day.
Donned in red sweaters and scarfs with supporting arms around each other’s backs, students and community members alike shed tears for those lost to an epidemic that threatens the lives of almost 20,000 in the Lansing area today.
And at the same time they shared hope.
Stronger than stigma
Although strides have been made in education about HIV and AIDS, Jake Distel, executive director of the Lansing Area AIDS Network, said the stigma about the disease still is rampant.
It’s one factor explaining why about 25 percent of those living with HIV in the Lansing area don’t know they have it, he said.
“Because of stigma, a number of individuals don’t get tested,” Distel said. “Even if they are tested, they’re fearful of getting treatment because they don’t want to lose their family or friends. People living with HIV today can live a quality-of-life existence with an average life expectancy if they get treatment early, but HIV progresses to full-blown AIDS rapidly.”
Distel, who lost his own partner of 17 years to AIDS, said the earlier individuals get tested and diagnosed, the better their outlook is for a healthy life.
Ingham County offers services including basic education, testing, treatment options, prevention measures for those who are HIV negative and support for those who are HIV positive, said Vennishia Smith, HIV/AIDS and STI prevention coordinator for the Ingham County Health Department.
“Testing is scary,” Smith said.
“A lot of times, as a counselor, people will come into the office and they’re shaking. They have a fear of testing, a fear of hearing the results. People tell me that once they hear the results, that’s when they get sick. What we want is early detection.”
Regardless of fears and existing stigma in today’s society, Young said people living with HIV and AIDS are strong.
“We’re survivors,” he said. “HIV has made me a better man. I’m proud of the man I am. I’ve always appreciated life and HIV has made it that much more important to me to enjoy life. I have a zest for life.”
Spartans in red
The season’s first real snowfall sprinkled students’ hair and the painted rock behind them Wednesday as they held candles and read poems to commemorate those fighting HIV/AIDS.
Several Olin Health Advocates, most of whom have spent more than a year as sexual health counselors, put on the event to help raise awareness, said Jamie Phillipich, a health advocate and physiology senior.
“We live in a generation where we think it can’t happen to us, but it’s a very real possibility, especially in our demographic as college students,” Phillipich said.
Phillipich’s parents were uncomfortable talking about HIV/AIDS as a part of her job when she first started as an advocate. Now, after several conversations, she said she sees a change in their attitudes.
“We can educate the older generation as well,” she said.
Young said he also thinks the younger generation is more accepting of HIV/AIDS, with a more accurate view of what the disease really is.
“We’re not just sick, skinny people that are wasting away,” he said.
“Things have changed in terms of how long people are living. These people, young people, are the ones making the best strides as far as acceptance.”
Getting people to think beyond the idea of putting HIV infected individuals in a bubble is the biggest challenge moving forward, Young said.
“People living with HIV are exactly the same as people living without it,” Young said.
“We’re people, and that’s the bottom line.”