Painter & Athlete Esther Kim Not Only Is A Survivor, But She Reinvented Herself With A New Sense Of Dignity And Inner Peace
by Dann Dulin
Photos Courtesy E. Kim
Ms. Kim is a striking force!
Born in 1973 with a heart defect, she spent the first year of her life in and out of a San Francisco hospital. At one point, her father bargained with God. If He saved his daughter, who was unnamed, he would dedicate his life to Him. She lived, and was named Esther, which was taken from the Bible. Esther’s father was good for his word. He became a minister.
At twenty-eight, in 2001, Esther confronted another health crisis. A month after she ended a relationship with her financé, she received a call from Italy, where her former beau was living. He revealed, “I’m HIV-positive.” The news of course was ….surreal. Esther immediately sprinted to Out of the Closet thrift store, where they provide free HIV testing. They told her that the result was “ambiguous” and asked her to retake the test. She took the second test at AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). The result was positive.
Having a five-year-old son at the time, and no health insurance, Esther was devastated. She had just finished grad school, earning an MFA and was teaching as an adjunct instructor. In addition, she had two part-time jobs. Blaming herself, she suffered guilt and shame. Esther felt alone, trapped, and isolated. It was a dark difficult time. Being from a traditional Korean family, she decided to suffer in silence, panicking that her family would find out her secret.
At one point, Esther flashed back to when she first heard about AIDS. Her fourth grade teacher talked about Ryan White, and the struggle his family was facing. Esther didn’t want her family to undergo the pain and heartache that the White family endured.
After being diagnosed, Esther’s core concern was her son. Even though there were
advancements with antiretrovirals at the turn of the century, medical personnel informed her that she probably would only live between ten and thirty years tops. Questions and worries consumed and gnawed at her. She was a single mother, and it was devastating for her to think that she might not live to experience her son growing into manhood, let alone that he might be an orphan after his high school graduation. Feeling “stupid and naïve” about being infected, Esther felt like she had failed her son.
Esther became a client of AHF, for one reason because it was free. She also became a client at the Phil Simon Clinic located in Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital. Since Los Angeles has a tight-knit Korean community, Esther demanded utmost confidentiality. At Phil Simon Clinic, they worked with her to ease her anxiety. When she made an appointment, they made sure that there were no doctors, nurses, or clients of Korean descent scheduled. The pharmacist would drop off her medication at the clinic so that she wouldn’t risk exposure.
Eventually she sought out psychotherapy, and, being steeped in such overbearing fear, it took her a year to reveal that she was living with HIV. Esther returned to her spiritual roots by attending the Korean Pentecostal Church in which she had grown up and where her father was senior pastor. There, her heart connected to a higher power, which she chose to call “God.” About that time, she began training with AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) for her first marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon. Before this, Esther had never been a runner.
She not only completed the marathon but also participated in seven more Los Angeles Marathons! Her son ran it twice with her, once fundraising for APLA. That bundle of dynamite also geared up for AIDS Life/Cycle. She completed it and then rode five more times, one year being a Roadie and one year a Media Ambassador, one of the ride’s official spokespersons.
A Media Ambassador shares their compelling personal story with media outlets, such as print, television, online, radio, etc. They continue this mission before, during, and after the AIDS/LifeCycle. They’re even included in the media kit, which is comprised of their photos and bios.
Running and riding led to triathlons. Esther and her current husband of seven years, Glendale, participated in Ironman Arizona. Modestly she states, “It kind of broke me, but…I…did… it!”
Indeed she did! The athlete didn’t realize it at the time, but her choices were all about healing. Therapy, faith, and endurance sports played major parts in her emotional and mental journey.
Over the years, Esther began to divulge her “secret” to friends and family. It was a slow tedious process but she began with a few trusted friends then told her sister, then a brother. To this day, not all her siblings know. When she became Media Ambassador, Esther knew it was time to tell her parents. Originally she planned never to tell them, because she didn’t want to cast worry upon them, nor jeopardize her father’s position at his church. But he had just retired.
Naturally nervous about telling them, Esther drove to their home. They handled the news quite “surprisingly well.” Her vibrant appearance and her active lifestyle certainly put their concerns about her health at ease. Anticipating shame, Esther came out with love and support!
In February 2018, Esther traveled to Tanzania with the Phil Simon Clinic for two weeks, led by her doctor. The voyage took Esther to home visits where HIV people were living discreetly, due to stigma. She took part in a women’s HIV support group, encountering single mothers whose husbands had either left or died. At one point she painted murals with children from one of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots-supported schools, and volunteered at several free clinics.
It was a mind-blowing experience, even cathartic, with Esther realizing that she shared a common thread with many of these folks—even all those miles from home.
Esther counts as her heroes all those who’ve died from AIDS-related complications, those who spoke up early on, the medical personnel who cared for those when nobody else would, and all people who raise awareness for the cause.
Today, Esther is in a loving marriage and her twenty-four year old son, a designer, rocks her world. She works for studios in animation, as a background painter. In her downtime, Esther enjoys watching the film Love, Actually over and over again, and the best concert she ever attended? Flaming Lips at the Hollywood Bowl because it was the first concert she ever took her son to when he was eight years old!
Dann Dulin: Esther, what was your immediate reaction when you were told that you were positive?
Esther Kim: As soon as the doctor told me, tears rolled down my face. [She takes a moment.] I apologized for crying, but he quickly assured me that it was perfectly natural to cry. I was devastated. My first thought was of my son. I was a single mom at the time and his only parent. What would happen to him if I died? [Esther inhales sharply.] I didn’t know much about the disease at the time.
It’s natural to feel that way. How did you deal with your diagnosis?
I didn’t start antiretroviral therapy right away. At the time my doctor said it was ok and to wait until my T cells dropped below 200. Now, everyone goes on therapy right away. It took less than two years and my T cells dropped, which meant I officially had AIDS. I was put on a medication and had an allergic reaction. I became violently ill and ended up at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena for a week. Even with a weeklong hospitalization, nobody knew I had AIDS. Everyone thought I was working too hard and got an infection——which was true. [Esther faintly titters in a mocking way.]
What happened then?
The first six years of my diagnosis was a lonely time. Not long after my diagnosis, I unexpectedly began dating a man. It took me way too long to tell him I was HIV-positive. I didn’t know how to tell him. I felt the window had passed and I was trapped in my secret. I eventually mustered up the courage to tell him. He accepted it and we stayed together for many years, but I never stopped feeling guilty and tried to make up for my mistake [she states with solemn gravity]. He was the only one who knew about my status and accepted me.
How did the relationship end?
He was a good man, but it was not a healthy relationship. I never felt free to leave the relationship because I didn’t think anyone else would want me. When it finally ended, I was at the lowest point of my life. Since the six years of my diagnosis, medical advancements meant I could potentially live a very long life. If I wasn’t going to die, I decided I wanted to live well. And that meant revealing my secret to loved ones.
How did that play out?
I was always nervous opening up. I thought it would make me vulnerable to share something so private and shameful. The opposite happened. Each time I shared, I felt like the stigma had less power over me. I felt closer to the people I shared my status with.
That seems to be the general reaction when people reveal secrets, not always, but most of the time. How did you handle telling your son?
This was the hardest thing. I didn’t know what was appropriate. I told him when he was sixteen. [She pauses.] I’m not sure it was the right decision. He had a tough time in high school and I wonder if sharing with him contributed to this. I think it would have been easier on him if he knew when he was younger. Then it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. He would have just grown up with the information.
Hmmm, a rough call indeed, Esther. How in the hell—and where do you get the energy—to ride FIVE TIMES in AIDS/LifeCycle and run the LA Marathon SEVEN TIMES.
After the first marathon, which I originally planned to do just once, I got a friend to sign up for the next year. I couldn’t let her do it alone, so I ran one more time. Each year, more people would sign up, so I kept running. My son ran a couple of times too. It was heartwarming to see my coach and fellow runners take him under their wing.
And AIDS Life/Cycle …
I met some guys through training who also rode in it. It sounded like a crazy challenge, biking from S.F. to L.A., and it also required more fundraising. I started training for both the marathon and the ride. It was hectic training, working, fundraising and raising a child. [Esther exhales serenely.] There’s another benefit to taking part in charity endurance events. The community is loving, generous, and kind. I heard many stories of struggle and courage that inspired me to eventually speak up and share my story.
Did your friends and family eventually celebrate your successes in sports?
I received support from family and friends through the years as I ran, rode, and fundraised. I learned that you couldn’t go it alone. You need people to help you carry some of the load. I didn’t need to suffer alone.
Wow, that’s a revelation. Indeed. Good for you! Briefly put into words what you got out of the ride.
I experienced a deep connection to God as I rode across California. Even though there are 2,000-plus riders, the act of cycling is very solitary, so it can give space to meditate on the beauty of nature.
I’m captivated. On a spiritual plane how did all this affect you?
It felt good to give back and help others who were struggling with HIV and AIDS. I transferred my entire emotional and mental trauma to training and racing for the L.A. Marathon. Working physically towards an almost unattainable goal, and then achieving it, releases crazy amounts of endorphins! The second I crossed the finish line, I felt a heavy burden lift. I looked up into the sky and saw the sun shining brightly. This was a huge turning point for me.
I can almost feel your bliss, Esther!
All during this, I didn’t consciously make a plan to heal. I just decided to do things that seemed like a good idea. Looking back, I can see I worked on my whole self: spirit, heart, mind, and body. It took some time, but I also learned to forgive. Forgiveness was a powerful tool that helped me release much of my anger and bitterness.
Early on when stigma had a hard bite on you like a Rottweiler, you trusted the Phil Simon Clinic who graciously worked with you.
They were very sensitive to my fears. I think there are a lot of clients who don’t seek treatment because of the negative stigma. The clinic went out of their way to make their clients feel safe and secure.
Then years later they invited you on their Tanzania trip.
It was surreal to participate with some of the doctors and nurses who helped me during the early years of my diagnosis, when everything was a secret. I felt honored to share this experience and glad I could show them the fruit of their labor.
What was your take on the people you met there who were living with HIV?
The women I met were resilient. Most of them were single moms. They all had small businesses and gave each other micro loans. They were both resourceful and full of joy.
We all felt the loneliness of living with a secret, the pain of being rejected, and the worries of supporting a child or children alone. But we also found ways to heal and grow. We found joy and a community that would strengthen us.
Name the title of your memoir.
Backseat Pastor. My husband says that’s what it should be if I become one some day. I’ve been considering going to seminary. I always sit in the back seat at church, as it gives me a different perspective to view the congregation from the back.
Fascinating viewpoint.…and yet another reinvention of Esther Kim. Kudos! Who’s your role model, Ms. Kim?
Jimmy Carter—as he works towards making people’s lives better. His faith is practiced, not preached.
Sounds a tad like ….you! Esther, sum up your journey.
Of course I wish I never contracted HIV, but I have learned to let it bring out the best in me. Normalizing conversation about health and disease is something I would like to see happen within my community. I think it would help the next person who is of the same gender or race come to terms with this disease—especially one who contracted it through sex—and perhaps not struggle the many years I have.
[Esther takes a marathon breath, then in bursting voice, which is somewhere between jasmine and rhinestone with a hint of honey, concludes urgently] My hope is others will be able to find what brings them joy, even in the crisis of an HIV diagnosis. [Ms. Kim then flashes a sage smile.]
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.