I find that a lot of newly diagnosed people living with HIV believe that their life is over. I said it before that, when I found out that I was positive, I first thought: What are my parents going to think? My second thought was: What am I to do now I can’t have any biological children of my own? My third thought was that I am going to die. Then I thought: What was the point of even going back to school?
Looking back at all of these statements and questions, I think to myself that all of them have either been misinformed or have been answered favorably. Presently, my parents are very proud of me and love the work that I do; HIV-positive persons can have children without the child acquiring HIV or they can adopt as well. And I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. The education piece was much harder to think about.
Thinking about how education has fulfilled my life thus far it only felt natural to go back to school, until I became HIV-positive. I had fulfilled at least one year of college education before I became positive. It took a while to get back to school, but I did. I went back, and I went back on a mission.
I earned my associate’s in Communications from Axia College and, in 2009, I went on to earn my bachelor’s in Political Science. I didn’t want to stop because, as I excelled in my education, my job prospects went up and I was able to earn more money. This allowed me to eventually get off of Maryland AIDS Drug Assistance Program (MADAP). Just in case you didn’t know, MADAP ensures that people living with HIV/AIDS in Maryland have access to the medication they need to stay healthy and is a statewide program and is funded primarily through the Ryan White CARE Act. MADAP pays for medications for eligible clients with no insurance and helps clients with insurance by paying for eligible co-pay and deductible costs so they can get their medication.
In 2015 I received my Master’s degree in Public Health (MPH), a field that I’m passionate about. A month after I received my MPH, I was interviewed and hired in the public health arena for my 9-to-5 job; my activism has been in HIV since 2003. In my heart I knew I was a public health advocate and that education would further solidify my expertise in the field. This year I was awarded my Doctorate in Public Health and now I feel more fulfilled than ever. How I am going to use my doctorate? I do not know yet, but what I do know is that I shall use it wisely. I’m not telling you to go out and get a doctorate, but what I’m saying is that all ambitions and dreams do not end with HIV.
People often forget their dreams or put them on the back burner because of HIV, but this cannot be. Fulfill your potential; use this experience to help others going through the same thing to fulfill their own potential. Use opportunities like this one to further educating others on HIV.
What some people do not understand is that sometimes life is not straightforward for some of us. As the road curves, we then use our life experiences to dictate what we will do professionally in life or what we feel passionate about. I know for my life it’s both—straight lines and curves. Before I became HIV-positive, for example, I already knew and had dated people who were positive. I actually started working at an HIV non-profit in 2003. I watched friends die and suffer because of HIV and I knew I had to do something. I knew that I could not turn my head or idly watch as my friends became affected by being infected with HIV. A lot of my friends became complacent with being positive; they died either because they were not educated enough to get resources, or they thought because they were HIV-positive they could just easily take pills at any time and be okay and they would often die because of not taking their meds until it was too late. I knew I needed to make resources available to my community so that another friend did not die in vain. So, I fulfilled one of my dreams of having an education. I know they are proud of what I’ve accomplished and I will continue to make them proud by fulfilling more of my dreams.
Sleep well and have pleasant dreams, everyone!
—Dr. Justin B Terry-Smith
Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, PhD, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].