Angie Suarez

Love and Light

Advocate Angie Suarez encourages others living with HIV/AIDS to listen to their hearts
by Sean Black and Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black

Although the circumstances of her health are sad and complicated, Anyole Suarez greets each day with “love and light,” a personal mantra for this radiant advocate living with HIV. Angie, as she prefers, has a deeply rooted respect, a “love” she says for everything and everyone. “I think the world would be a better place if we all saw ourselves as a collective whole, a interconnected community of Homo sapiens.”

Angie was born with a rare medical condition known as Aggressive Lymphangiohemangioma, a combination diagnosis where non-malignant, soft-tissue tumors and vascular lesions invade the chest cavity of infants and children and, in some cases, such as Angie’s, extend into the neck and arm.

As difficult to pronounce as it is to understand, Angie breaks it down for us. “I was born with a tumor that wraps around my left lung and pushes on my heart.” Part of the massive tumor network, which had originally extended down her left arm to the tips of her fingers, was surgically removed along with her arm when she was just thirteen years of age. A hard choice she made with her parents due to the constant oozing and uncomfortable cellulitis. A major part of the benign tumor however remains entwined around her left lung and can never be fully removed due to its life-critical positioning. “Mini-cysts still continue to grow on my lungs which in turn leaves me vulnerable to infection and greatly affects my breathing.” Angie has spent most of her life in and out of hospitals and has had numerous invasive and painful surgeries. “More than I’d care to count,” this vivacious trooper admits. Her latest hospital admission took place just a few months ago shortly before her twenty-eighth birthday.

Of all her medical ailments and challenges, however, it is certainly her first surgery that is the most perplexing. Along with her twin sister Gina, who is one minute younger, Angie was born in Florida in 1984, months before donor blood began to be screened for HIV. Soon after her birth, doctors removed a massive tumor underneath her tiny arm. Having lost so much blood required a desperately needed blood transfusion. Unfortunately, the blood she received was contaminated by HIV, which wasn’t discovered until later in early youth and disclosed to her around her eleventh birthday.

Her candor is refreshing while the compassion that she displays is as striking as the streaks of electric blue that shimmer in the motion of her hair. “When I was younger I was in special classes with many types of children with different kinds of disabilities.” Pausing to take a breath she recollects one of these childhood playmates with whom she has since fallen out of touch.

“I had this one friend, Jessica Cruz, who had a cleft palate. On the outside she looked ‘normal’ but when she spoke it was quite hard to understand her. She and I became really good friends. I didn’t care that she sounded differently and she didn’t care about my disfigured arm [prior to its amputation, which Angie concedes changed how she was approached throughout her high school years]. It’s about caring about one another, loving one another and treating each other fairly and kindly.”

In 1997, Angie was a special guest on The Ricki Lake Show along with her mother Ana and her sister Gina. After being presented with a gift basket from one of her idols, Mariah Carey, whom Angie has since met, Ricki granted her soon-to-be “favorite guest” a wish come true—the opportunity to swim with dolphins. In a heartbreaking yet joyful moment Angie opens up to Ricki, “I wish you could see how happy I am.” To which Ricki tearfully replies. “I do see how happy you are,” followed by, “I hope my sons grow up to be just like you.” Through the touching exchange Angie beams through her tears to offer a heartfelt “Thank you.”

Since the airing of the show Angie has been back twice to catch up with her talk show champion. Today, Angie is with a supportive, HIV-negative boyfriend whom she’s been with for over two and a half years. “We are madly in love,” she admits while conceding that both families give their full blessings and approval.

Angie is truly an amazing example of the power of positive living. She is currently enrolled in college and pursuing her AS degree in Early Childhood Development. She plans to continue on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Education. Asked why a degree in education the youthful beauty quickly replies, “I want to work with children in grades second through fifth. I find that working with children at that age I can help influence and mold their characters for when they get older. I can help guide them to become smarter as well as more kind and loving.”

Fellow South Florida advocate Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane had the opportunity to catch up with her long-time friend for a heart-to-heart Q&A on life with HIV.

Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane: What is it that you, as an advocate, want people
to know?
Angie Suarez:
I would like people to know that I choose not to hide my face or the truth that I am living with HIV. Educating people in this field has always been a passion of mine because I have never been ashamed of my disease. I have been living with the virus for over twenty-eight years. Life doesn’t have to end once you know your diagnosis.”

As an advocate, how do you help others?
Besides speaking openly about my status, I recently attended the 7th International Conference on HIV Treatment and Prevention Adherence here in Miami. This year I spoke to two groups of young medical students and doctors about living with HIV. For many years I helped in fundraising efforts with the University of Miami’s Division of Infectious Disease and Immunology initiative called Project Cradle, which benefits children living with and affected by HIV.

What is the hardest part of living with HIV?
I think the hardest part of having HIV is knowing that one day I will most likely die from AIDS. Losing friends and loved ones along the way is also very difficult. I remember a childhood friend, who died of AIDS. I remember watching her body [be decimated] and it is a constant reminder of what can happen. I also find it challenging having to take pills that eat away at the lining of my stomach and make my liver work harder to process the constant bombardment of medication. The side effects are definitely a low point of living with HIV.

Two queens: Quintara and Angie play chess
As a Latina living with HIV, do you find that you are labeled differently than other people of different ethnicities living with the virus?
I am not really crazy about labels but if we must go there, then let’s. I am comfortable in the truth that I am a Puerto Rican/Cuban American that happens to live with HIV. I am proud of my Latin culture and my ethnicity. I have never been discriminated or harassed within my own culture because of it.

Is there anything that you’d like to share about dating someone who is HIV-negative?
I had to kiss a lot of frogs before I found my prince. I found the hardest part of dating in the past was telling my potential partner my status. I feel that people deserve to know up front. Honesty goes a long way and so does mutual respect, no matter what the cost.

Who is Angie?
I am Anyole Suarez, a divine, light-being experiencing what it is to be human. I have faced many things in my life and the one thing that I can say about my journey is that positive thinking brings positive things. As long as I take my HIV meds, I can live a little longer. If by treating people with kindness, I make a difference then my life purpose has been complete. I am love, light, joy, and humility. I have compassion for my passions. That is who I am.

Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane is a South Florida AIDS advocate and health educator. She is an active member of The Family Foundation of Greater Miami and frequently arranges “Street Scares” through The RCP Movement’s outreach initiatives.

Sean Black is Editor at Large for A&U.

October 2012