A ‘POZ’-itive person: Bemidji woman recognized for her work in HIV/AIDS awareness
BEMIDJI — A battle against AIDS has led a Bemidji woman down a positive path.
“The people on this list are the unsung heroes living in the U.S.,” Valencia said.
POZ is an online resource and print magazine for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. The POZ 100 list recognizes people living with or affected by HIV or AIDS who have had a positive impact in their communities.
Valencia has been living with the virus since 1994. That same year, Acquired Immuno Defi ciency Syndrome, or AIDS, became the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44. The first case of AIDS was reported in 1981, the condition has been recognized annually since 1988 on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.
Valencia wasn’t a drug addict. She wasn’t sexually promiscuous. She was a 34-year-old mother of five sons and two daughters.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time,” Valencia said. “I’d read about Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson, but I never really paid any mind to it.”
Valencia contracted the virus from her husband, Luis, who she later learned was using drugs intravenously. Valencia did not have any symptoms. After Luis died, an autopsy was performed which revealed he had HIV. Valencia was tested and three months later, learned she tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
“If he’d known he had HIV, I’ll never know to this day either,” Valencia said. “But he came back and he gave it to me. I was so angry.”
In the beginning, Valencia thought she’d been dealt a death sentence. She mourned herself by drowning her fears in alcohol and numbing her pain with drugs. Valencia has been a recovering alcoholic and recovering drug addict for the past nine years.
Four years ago, Valencia moved from Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis to Cass Lake for a fresh start, a drug-free life away from where her “negative behavior” was rooted. She’s been working with the Indigenous Peoples Task Force for two years.
“The best way for people to help lower their risk is to get educated and to use protection,” Valencia said. “My goal is to work with the young folks.”
Valencia has become certified in women’s health education. She also speaks at schools and has presented to the Tribal Nation Substance Abuse Treatment Programs. Valencia said at first, her speeches were shaky and she would cry.
“I still have tears that come out but it’s not because I feel sorry,” Valencia said. She added that right after her diagnosis she did think about what she calls her “illness,” which is what lead up to her alcohol and drug abuse.
Changes in awareness, testing
A lot has changed since Valencia contracted HIV. Valencia began medication on a 28-pill regimen. She is now down to four pills twice a day. Her medication ranges from $600 to $1,000 apiece per month.
Not taking the costly prescriptions can have grave effects. Valencia almost died when her T-cell count dropped down to 20 while she had Pneumocystis pneumonia. Once a person’s T-cells drop below 200, they have AIDS, Valencia said.
Testing for the virus has also changed a great deal. When Valencia was first tested it took months to learn the results, now it takes minutes.
“They didn’t have rapid tests back then,” Valencia said. “The testing we do now, the rapid tests, only take 10-15 minutes to come back.”
Rapid tests are administered much like a blood sugar check for diabetes. A finger prick and a drop of blood on a testing strip reveals a person’s condition.
A Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, Valencia volunteers as a peer advocate for the Task Force assisting in HIV testing for the Red Lake Tribal Nation and the Leech Lake Tribal Nation. The Community Promise Program hosts testing on the third Friday of the month at the Red Lake Nation College and on the fourth Friday at the Leech Lake Facility Center in Cass Lake. Valencia said when the Community Promise Program started administering tests it was mostly elders who would stop by her table. Now more college students are dropping by, as well.
Valencia assists with testing by providing educational materials and contraceptives. She said that although she would like to assist further, the thought of a person with HIV handling blood would “freak people out.”
Valencia credits Emily Annette, Community Promise Program Coordinator, and case managers Cheryl Yarnotte and Collette Lawrence with supporting her in her mission to educate the public, to change and save lives. However, the program may be disbanded after Jan. 1, Valencia said, because of a lack of funding.
Valencia plans to continue seeking funding sources and educating people on HIV and AIDS. She believes that if just one person is saved, it is worth her time. Valencia doesn’t want people who have been newly diagnosed to feel alone or have to endure feeling ostracized as she did in the 90s.
“I don’t dwell on my illness,” Valencia said. “I’m thriving.”
World AIDS Day
Today is World AIDS day. According to the website aids.gov:
33.4 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV/AIDS.
More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with the HIV infection.
More than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the first cases were reported in 1981.
While cases have been reported all around the world, almost all of those living with HIV, or 97 percent, reside in low- and middle-income countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health:
As of Dec. 31, 2012, there have been 10,112 persons diagnosed and reported with HIV in Minnesota. Of those cases, 3.947 have been diagnosed with HIV (non-AIDS) and 6,165 have progressed to AIDS. Of the total number, 3, 459 are known to be deceased.
There will be a prayer service in honor of World AIDS day at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 1800 Irvine Ave. NW, at 1 p.m. today.