In the mid 1980s one of Jacki Gethner's oldest girlfriends was badly injured in a car accident, and grew addicted to her IV pain medication. Jacki talked her friend into rehab, but soon she relapsed again, and the two of them had a major falling out. Some months later, Jacki got the call that her friend had contracted HIV.
Jacki didn't know much about the disease at the time, but neither did anybody else. “This was a time when people were still wearing gowns and masks and gloves,” Jacki, who is 60 now, told The Huffington Post from her home in Portland, OR. “Nobody wanted to share glasses or touch people with HIV, not even nurses.”
In the months leading up to her friend’s news, Jacki had started the process to become a registered massage therapist. “And one of the only holistic medicine AIDS conferences was coming into existence in Boulder, Colorado, where I was living,” Jacki remembers. “I was a single mom and didn’t have the money to pay for a conference, but I wanted to use my newly acquired skills in massage to do something useful.”
Jacki and a co-worker set up massage chairs at the back of the conference hall and found themselves inundated. Between the two of them, they worked with hundreds of HIV/AIDS patients and caregivers over the course of three days. “We literally put our hands on some participants and they just lost it,” Jacki said. “So many of them had not been touched by anybody in weeks or months.” From there, Jacki’s practice became a staple at the AIDS Medicine and Miracles conference.
She also began working with other AIDS community-outreach organizations, honing her particular brand of reflexology and regenerative therapies. “I started working with family members of people with HIV, too, helping them understand each other’s bodies as caregivers.” Jacki noted that so many patients have so much idle time, and their lack of connection to their own bodies only exacerbates their condition.
She got involved with prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary, something nobody else was keen to do. “In prison, at that time, you couldn’t identify as having HIV or else all kinds of hell would break loose,” she said. Working with them on stress management, breathing exercises and comfort practices, Jacki became a staple at the prisons. “I had it so [the prisoners] were telling the officers to ‘take a breath, calm down,’ you know?” She laughed. “They had reflexology charts out in the yard.”
In recent years, Jacki has begun investigating an issue that has, up until now, been largely ignored: the prevention of HIV in older, American women. Through a generous grant from the Kaiser Permanente HIV/AIDS Diversity Award -- which, Jacki says, “looks like a giant penis, sitting in my room,” -- Jacki is currently in the process of developing the “Women of a Certain Age” program, designed to support and educate women over 50 with HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of women I’ve met married their high school sweethearts, stayed married for 45 years or so, and then their husbands passed and they find themselves single,” Jacki said. “HIV is not something they’re thinking about at all, but they are becoming sexually active.”
In the United States, about 15-17% of all new HIV infections are in people over the age of 50, Jacki estimates, and those numbers may have tripled in the last decade. “But women don’t think to get tested, and their doctors aren’t asking them if they’re sexually active because, honestly, it’s like asking your mother if she’s sexually active. It’s not something people want to think about.” Further, so many of HIV’s symptoms are similar to those of old age, which means the virus goes unchecked, and can transition into AIDS much more quickly.
“I’ve set up this program as a peer education program,” Jacki said. “So many people, even health professionals in retirement communities, they don’t know their HIV status. But they need to know this information.” So she's set up training programs, hoping to create a dialogue and establish leaders in local communities. Her plan is to train 100 women by next year as peer educators, and 40 social service professionals who can help women directly.
People are definitely paying attention. Jacki was recently nominated for the Civic Ventures Purpose Prize, an award given to people trying to make a difference in the second half of their lives.
“I want to be a partner with these women,” Jacki said. “I want them to know I exist.”
Learn more about Jacki by going to her website.
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