By Jasmyne A. Cannick
When I got the text from one of my best friends that she was being admitted into the hospital at 1:30 in the morning, I immediately called her back to find out what was wrong. It’s not unusual for me to be up all night working, especially if I have to be at the radio station by 4:30 a.m. I’d rather sleep later than risk oversleeping and missing the show. I never reached her that night and so when I was done with the show at 6 a.m., while my intentions had been to go home and go to sleep for a few hours, something inside of me wouldn’t let me. So at 6 a.m., I got on the freeway in search of my friend. I went to her house and she wasn’t there so I called her cousin in hopes she would know what hospital she was at—no help there. I often forget that while I am an early riser, most people are not.
So I went to the nearest hospital thinking that’s where she would be, call it logical deduction. She wasn’t there. Then it came to me to read the text message she had sent to me again. I did and realized she had actually said where she was at and so I got directions and headed over there.
I don’t know what I expected when I finally reached my friend’s hospital room, but I do know that what I saw when I walked into that hospital room nearly killed me and is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I practically collapsed on the spot when I walked into that hospital room and saw my friend hooked up to an IV, withered down to skin and bones. She had lost a lot of her hair, including her eyebrows and her skin color—it just wasn’t normal.
I immediately burst into tears crying and asking what’s going on. I had seen enough with family members to know that what I was looking at wasn’t normal. My friend, always the protector of everyone else but herself, immediately explains to me that it’s just stress from working two jobs and not eating. She told me that she was dehydrated and that stress had done this to her.
I wasn’t buying it. I didn’t tell her that, but inside, I didn’t buy that excuse for a minute. I know stress and what I was looking at wasn’t stress. For the sake of my friend, I pretended to go along with the story. I comforted her, I talked to her, I held her, I kissed her, I loved her. I didn’t want to leave my friend’s side not even for a minute after I got there but after a while I suggested that I should run to her house and grab her clothes and other toiletries she might need—she agreed.
After giving me a laundry list of things to bring back with me, I left the hospital to go to her house.
In the car, I called a mutual friend of ours in tears explaining what had just happened. I needed to talk to someone who knew us both. I was so scared for my friend. I was still on the phone with our mutual friend when I reached my friend’s house. I remember walking into her house looking around and surveying her refrigerator. Why the refrigerator? Because she told me about not eating and I wanted to see what food she had.
Still crying while I am talking to our friend on the phone, I began to gather her clothes. While digging around for a shirt she wanted, I came across a stash of medicine hidden in a hamper. I remember thinking, that’s weird, why is the medicine in the hamper under all of these clothes? I abruptly ended the conversation I was having on the phone and pulled out the pills and took a closer look at them. They were awfully colorful, all packaged up by day and time of day. How efficient, I thought. They weren’t opened. That can’t be good. I managed to read the names and numbers on the pills and I started punching them up on my phone’s Internet browser to find out what they were for. Orange pill. TMC. So I searched for “TMC pill.” Pill imprint 400 TMC has been identified as Prezista 400 mg. Prezista is used in the treatment of hiv infection and belongs to the drug class protease inhibitors. I thought, okay well it must treat more than that. Let me search another pill. Blue pill. Gillead 701. Pill imprint GILEAD 701 has been identified as Truvada 200 mg / 300 mg. Truvada is used in the treatment of hiv infection; nonoccupational exposure and belongs to the drug class antiviral combinations. Cue the denial. White pill. 227. Pill imprint 227 has been identified as Isentress 400 mg. Isentress is used in the treatment of hiv infection and belongs to the drugclass integrase strand transfer inhibitor. And then I scream. Looking back now, I know her neighbors were probably like what the hell is going on next door. I screamed. I cried. I ran around her apartment and then I literally collapsed right there on her living room floor into a ball. I’m not sure how long I lay there crying and screaming “why” over and over again before I called the one person in the world I could talk to about this—my grandmother. It turns out that my best friend had been living with HIV since 2007 and had kept it a secret from her family and her friends all of this time. The shame, stigma, fear, and denial were simply too much for her to bear. After being unable to deal with the side effects of the medicine she was taking while still working two jobs, she simply one day decided to quit taking them. The result of her doing that was a viral load of 1.5 million and 4 T-cells. She had just 4 white blood cells to defend her body against any new infectious diseases and the 1.5 million virus infections already in her.
It’s been a month since she was released from the hospital and she’s not out of the danger zone yet, but she’s on the way. My friend’s situation is not unique—this is happening all over Black America because of the stigma, hate, and fear we’ve placed on HIV/AIDS. Most people don’t die from HIV/AIDS in America anymore thanks to recent medical advancements and access to antiviral drugs. But when it comes to Black people, we die from the shame and fear and attached to HIV/AIDS because of our attitudes towards getting tested and then seeking treatment if we are positive coupled with the stigma we have cultivated andseemingly embraced in the Church, our homes, and among our family and friends. Our fear prohibits us from getting tested and allows us to believe that we are somehow immune and it can’t happen us. I got news for you, no one is immune—not you and not me and HIV doesn’t care how fine you are, how much money you have, how old you are, what you think your man or woman is or is not doing when you are not around, or what God you pray to and how highly favored and blessed you are. Until we break the cycle of fear and shame about HIV/AIDS, Black people are going to continue to die from the fear and shame of the same disease that others manage to live long, healthy, and productive with. Real talk. June 27 was National HIV Testing Day. It’s still not too late to take the test, take control.
Chosen as one of Essence Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World, Jasmyne A. Cannick is a campaign media and public affairs specialist. She is also a radio andtelevision politics, race, and pop culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @jasmyne and on Facebook at /jasmyne.