Living with HIV/AIDS

Various organizations at Wilfrid Laurier University teamed up with AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA) to educate students about the taboo subject of HIV and AIDS as part of the global HIV/AIDS Awareness Week running from Nov. 24 to Dec.1.

Justine Dogbe, president of the Association of Black Students, felt that the week was a good opportunity for Laurier students to learn more about what she feels is an underrepresented illness.

“The knowledge that people have or don’t have about it is so inaccurate,” she said.

Laurier’s Association of Black Students was among the student organizations including BACCHUS, Future of Africa and the Rainbow Centre that were participating in HIV/AIDS Awareness Week. The events held ranged from information sessions to film screenings, literature discussions and an open mic night.

“All of the funds that we raised went towards ACCKWA,” said Dogbe. On Nov. 30, a couple battling the effects of the virus shared their story at an event entitled “Talk and Unlearn.”

Guy and Mary, who chose not to provide their last names, are clients of ACCKWA who wanted to spread awareness and dispel common myths about HIV/AIDS.

Emphasizing that AIDS is not simply a “gay man’s disease,” Guy said to the audience, “I’m here to tell you that it just ain’t so,” and pointedly identified himself as a “heterosexual, alpha-male.”

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is an illness that weakens the body’s immune system and can be acquired through sexual contact or sharing needles. HIV can also be passed from mother to child through pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

Guy explained that he started out as a bright and promising young man. However in his teen years, Guy began experimenting with drugs and stealing and before his 17th birthday, was sentenced to six years in prison.

“I not only survived, I flourished,” he said, sharing how prison had changed him. Soon after his release however, Guy relapsed into a life of drugs and sex with prostitutes. He found out he was HIV positive in his forties and is uncertain if he acquired it through sexual contact or needle use. Regardless, Guy said that his youthful ignorance was to blame for his illness.

“I knew about AIDS,” said Guy. “I’d heard about it. It was just my arrogance and my pride. I thought, ‘that could never happen to me.’”

Guy passed around his bag of daily medication to show the audience how difficult it is to live with the virus. He explained that many of his medications have additional side effects and that he has to eat six meals a day to maintain a healthy weight.

He commented on people’s ignorance of the disease has made him an outcast. “There’s a real social death that comes along with this, long before the actual death.”

However, he did find a positive side to his situation. “I’ve really changed,” Guy said. “I’ve met some incredible people.”

Mary, his now fiancée, was one of those people. Sharing her story, Mary said she contracted AIDS, the most advanced stage of the virus, from her unfaithful ex-husband.

“The doctor told me, ‘You have two years to live. Get your affairs in order. Find new parents for your kids,’” she said. After beginning experimental treatment 15 years ago, Mary has managed to surpass doctors’ expectations — although she has to change medications often because her strain of AIDS is resistant to most treatments.

At the time of her diagnosis, Mary was not well informed about HIV or AIDS. “I was embarrassed because people like me don’t get AIDS,” she admitted. “Married people don’t get AIDS.”

Mary now uses her public speaking to urge her audience that, contrary to popular belief, AIDS does not discriminate. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, gay or straight, thin or fat, married or single,” she said.