By Tia Douglass, Scientist, Cell Biology
I first started working with AIDS at a hospital in Baltimore, where I volunteered as a candy-stripe. Nurses, doctors, and other colleagues at the hospital were kind enough to educate me, enhancing my understanding of the disease. During my time at the hospital, I encountered an HIV-positive AIDS patient who I had to feed and care for. Back then I was scared of contracting the disease. I even took extra precaution to avoid contact with bodily fluids. Like any young up and coming professional, I wanted to do everything in my power to preserve the life I had ahead of me.
The patient, Ms. Judith Shaw, was also a receptionist at the same hospital. We spoke casually several times while I was candy-striping, and the more we spoke, the more I was able to piece together the tragic story of Ms. Judith’s life with HIV. After she discovered that her boyfriend – the father of her daughter – contracted the disease and then later gave it to Ms. Judith, she realized that her life would be forever changed. Upon first hearing the news, she reacted violently. Angry and scared, Ms. Judith approached her boyfriend wielding a gun, plotting revenge. But she realized that this decision wouldn’t change what had happened, and, thinking of her daughter, she decided that the only option was forgiveness. Following a difficult period of drug abuse, neglect, and the scars of surviving sexual assault by a member of her family, Ms. Judith eventually found the strength to face her demons and seek therapy.
Even though it took a long time, Ms. Judith insists that forgiveness saved her life. She has been living with HIV for over 20 years. She gives hope to those who feel hopeless. Two years ago, meeting Ms. Judith was the landmark moment in my life. She showed me kindness and love, and supported me in a time of need. Thanks to a steady regimen of treatments to reduce the amount of viral loads (HIV), she has managed to increase the number of CD4 cells in the blood, which help fight infections.
One of the most common misconceptions about HIV is that infection is instantly synonymous with AIDS. However, AIDS only applies to the final stage of a particularly long infection, as HIV gradually compromises the human body’s ability to fight disease, allowing for the development of certain types of cancer, viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The slow process delays most victims from recognizing symptoms for several years, sometimes over a decade.
Ms. Judith’s experiences overcoming her diagnosis and her initial feelings of anger have only made her stronger. She currently works as a receptionist at the Virology Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is able to assist patients who are newly infected, offering words of hope, kindness, and compassion, proving that health and happiness are possible after HIV. Now I work for a family-owned biotech company in Columbia, Maryland, and continue to learn every day about HIV and other viruses that threaten human health. Yes, I’ve come a long, long way since my days volunteering, having swapped my candy stripe uniform for a white lab smock. Whenever we’re hard at work in the lab, ramping up for a big production, I find myself often thinking about Ms. Judith – her kindness, her strength, and most of all, her triumph. She inspires me every day. Thank you Ms. Judith, you are the true meaning of life after.