Michelle Lopez likens herself to a flower, similar to the ones painted on the tips of her SWV-length fingernails.
“Did you ever notice the prettiest roses have the most thorns on the stem?” Michelle asks.
At 43 years old, sitting on a beige couch in her Brooklyn apartment, eating crab legs and dumplings, Lopez can point to plenty of thorns in her life — one of them being her HIV diagnosis.
In 1991, Lopez discovered both she and her young daughter were living with the virus. Lopez, a Trinidadian immigrant who had survived childhood molestation and abusive relationships, thought her life couldn’t get any worse.
After all, she had seen what HIV was capable of. She’d lost a cousin to the disease in 1983 and watched other friends with the disease deteriorate to walking skeletons before they eventually died too.
Luckily, nearly 20 years after diagnosis, her life with HIV is turning out differently.
“Since I’ve been diagnosed no one has ever seen that look,” Lopez says of the frailty so often associated with HIV patients.
But her journey with the disease hasn’t been as smooth as it looks. Dealing with her childhood pain and the virus took a toll on her
“It instilled such a disgust within myself,” she says.
She saw a therapist and was on mental health medication before she learned to let go of the pain and love herself. She gives her spirituality 100 percent of the credit for where she is today but won’t allow her progress to make her forget where she came from.
These days, Lopez works for the Community Healthcare Network, the same site that diagnosed her 19 years ago. She got a job at the center in 1993, shortly after she and her daughter moved out of a homeless shelter.
Working with the center Lopez has noticed money doesn’t play a factor in the type of medicine many HIV patients receive, but there are other economic discrepancies when it comes to the quality of their medical care. And this is why Lopez says the government’s first National HIV/AIDS strategy — released last week — is long overdue.
“It’s like a father paying child support. This is something you should have been doing,” Lopez says.
The new AIDS strategy has three major goals:
Reducing the number of people who become infected with HIV
Increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes for people living with HIV
Reducing HIV-related health disparities
On WhiteHouse.gov, President Obama mentions how HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects the African-American community.
”[African-Americans] make up 49 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases,” the site says, and “AIDS is the leading cause of death of African American women aged 25-34, and the third leading cause of death of African-American men in the same age group.”
Lopez has seen this first hand in the neighborhood where she works and lives.
“It’s ramped in Brooklyn. If you have 30 people standing on a corner in Brooklyn, one person has AIDS,” she says.
While some have criticized the plan for being too vague, HIV patient and activist Dale Anthony Edmonston has complete confidence President Obama will address the issue of patient care.
“Who could be better advocate?” he asks.
Edmonston goes to a hospital in Long Island specially designated for those living with HIV/AIDS. He says the hospital receives double reimbursement for the procedures they perform on HIV/AIDS patients, yet Edmonston says they are still treated like second-class citizens.
“The place where I go, they still got you going in the back door and we’re bringing in all the money,” he says.
Edmonston plans on advocating for patients like himself and taking the issue to the hospital’s president.
According to the new strategy, Edmonston will not be alone in this fight. There is an addendum to the strategy that says both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “will challenge the medical system to eliminate inequities in health care through quality measurement and reporting, implementation of effective interventions such as patient navigation programs and diversification of the health workforce.”
Advocacy is nothing new to Edmonston. After trying to commit suicide the first year of his diagnosis, he realized he could do something constructive with the disease. Years ago, he and his mother opened the doors of their home and began feeding and praying with people who had been infected or affected by the virus.
“People came for seven years 24 hours a day,” Edmonston says.
But eventually it became too much.
“People forgot I had AIDS too,” Edmonston says.
Realizing he could no longer work outside of his mother’s home he opened The Dale House Resource Center in 2003. Since then, he says 10,000 people have come through the doors of the center to review and discuss the details of their diagnoses.
“It was exhausting, but it was worth it being able to help somebody on this journey,” Edmonston says.
In his plan President Obama calls on the help of health and service organizations to accomplish the primary goals of the plan.
Lopez agrees it’s going to take more than the government to address the AIDS epidemic.
“No man is an island. Obama can’t do this by himself,” she says.