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'There is Life After an HIV Diagnosis'

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LIFEAFTERHIV
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This is Eduardo Hernandez's Story:

My first reaction to receiving a diagnosis of HIV was the feeling of having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. I was well beyond rational thought; all I could experience in that moment was a profound chill and the certainty that I was a dead man walking.

The diagnosis came from a doctor in my native Venezuela in 1998. He tossed off some obscure numbers -- a T-cell count of 57, a viral load of 300,000. I didn't know what those numbers actually meant, but I knew they were bad. The physician prescribed an HIV cocktail of AZT, Lamivudine and Saquinavir, and essentially left me to my own devices.

I was not only anxious and depressed; I was lost and alone. I had no words to tell the people who loved me the most -- my mother and the rest of my family. I fumbled around trying to find the right way to tell a woman with whom I was just entering a serious relationship. Whatever I said apparently was not too effective, as she quickly decided to bow out of my life. What do I say to people I love? How do I answer their questions when I can't answer my own?

I tried reaching out to some local AIDS service organizations, but for the most part, they were not too helpful. Back then, they didn't have the words, either. The most up-to-date information on HIV treatment and prevention was not filtering down to Venezuela and other Latin American countries. However, at AID FOR AIDS International, which in 1998 was still in the early stages of its development, I finally found what I needed -- a first-class education on living with HIV. Once I started to understand what was happening to me, both medically and psychologically, I could talk about it openly. AID FOR AIDS also assumed some of the costs of my treatment and helped me get comfortable with a strict drug regimen, new dietary requirements and the all the other small and not so small life changes wrought by HIV.

Six months after the diagnosis, I was finally able tell my mother -- who was tremendously supportive and open-minded, as were others in my life. Any disappointment I felt over a broken romance was dwarfed by the fact that the chill was gone and I was feeling alive again.

As a way to pay back some of the enormous debt of gratitude I had toward AID FOR AIDS, I began working as a volunteer in their Access To Treatment program in Venezuela. A year later, I accepted a full-time job in the program, which collects unused and unexpired HIV/AIDS medicine in the U.S. and redistributes it free to charge to needy recipients in 35 developing nations. It was the perfect job at the perfect time, and the transition from client to employee was seamless. For the past 13 years, Access to Treatment has been my lifeline. As mawkish as it sounds, helping people living with HIV or AIDS to take control of their medical treatment has been the best therapy I could have imagined.

All this is not to say that the past 13 years have been easy for me. For nearly a decade after the breakup of my relationship in 1998, I did not have another significant one. For years, I conducted my love life according to the rule of three - if a relationship managed to last through the first two dates, I would spill the beans on the third date. Some women reacted as if I had the plague and left before the dinner check arrived. Others expressed fear and uncertainty, but decided to hang in and get to know me better.

But it wasn't until four years ago that I began the next major romantic relationship of my life. No doubt contributing to the success of that relationship was the fact that my fiancé is a medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. There was no need for the usual third-date speech. From the outset, Claudia understood me better than I did myself. I also fell head over heels for Claudia's two daughters, who accepted me into their lives without any hesitation. Claudia and I plan to marry shortly.

At AID FOR AIDS, personal empowerment is a mantra. Among ourselves, and in counseling with our clients, we talk constantly about creating a vision of life that is not solely defined by HIV status. And that, in a nutshell, is how I try to live every day. I take one pill each day, maintain a healthy diet, and ride a bike for exercise. I'm a pretty good cook, and I love when friends ask me to help them with home repairs, as I'm told I've got a gift for that sort of thing. In short, there are not enough hours in the day to accommodate all the things I enjoy.

On HIV testing day, I would tell everyone what I tell hundreds of clients in the developing world. Information is power and lack of information is a curse. Get tested, and if the news isn't good, seek out people who can give you all the right information and soak it in. Believe me when I say that the more you know, the more you'll realize that there is life after an HIV diagnosis. A wonderful life, if I say so myself.

-- As Told To Mark Mehler

Eduardo Hernandez is the coordinator of Aid For Aids International's Treatment Access Program, which provides free antiretroviral medication to people living with HIV/AIDS in 35 developing nations.

Mark Mehler is a former print journalist and social service case manager. Now semi-retired, he works part-time as communications coordinator at AID FOR AIDS International in New York.

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