20 years later, I’m proof that one can live with AIDS

It will be 20 years ago in March that, after months of what seemed like having had every medical test known to man – ending finally with an anonymous HIV test – my doctor said, “You were diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.”

My husband and I asked what the prognosis was. The answer: “You have between 18 and 24 months to live.” And so started my journey as a person living with AIDS.

It wasn’t an easy beginning; I was the superintendent of public instruction and trying to take the only drug available at the time, AZT, surreptitiously, until I knew if I was going to improve, to live. We added two new drugs in the next 10 months, a combination that became known as “the drug cocktail,” and by January 1996, we called The New Tribune, did an interview with C.R. Roberts and Peter Callaghan telling them the story.

Then there was a press conference in Olympia with family and friends in attendance. I said, “I have AIDS, and I am going to live with it, not die from it.”

The following 20 years have opened doors, offered experiences, brought people into my life that never would have happened had I not been diagnosed with AIDS. For me, the blessings have outweighed the initial bombshell.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said for the majority of people who are infected in this country or elsewhere. For many, an HIV or AIDS diagnosis brings shaming, loss of jobs, exclusion from family and friends, and inability to access life-saving medicines and care.

As we mark World AIDS Day Monday (see box), we hope that our actions will move us more rapidly toward the end of the epidemic.

It is important to remember and memorialize our family and friends who were taken from us by AIDS. It is also important to remember that this problem is a worldwide problem. AIDS affects us all: homosexual and heterosexual, men and women, adults and children, the needy and the wealthy – it does not discriminate.

In addition to remembering, we can also hope and recognize the progress we have made. No longer does an AIDS diagnosis mean a death sentence or an end to a useful and meaningful life. I am a testament to that fact. Thanks to the innovation of specialty medicines, the disease can be medically managed. Those afflicted, like myself, can and do live full and long lives.

Make no mistake: We still have much to do to eliminate HIV and AIDS. We must act to ensure adequate access to health care is available to all, we must support HIV-positive individuals in their treatment adherence, we must encourage HIV testing, we must support anti-stigmatization campaigns, and we must support continued innovation in medical research and development, as well as increase HIV prevention education in at-risk communities.

Let us all commemorate on Monday by taking a moment to “remember, hope and act.” By intensifying our efforts today, we can end AIDS in our lifetime.

Judith Billings of Puyallup is a former state superintendent of public instruction.