They've been living with HIV for decades, and want you to know it's no longer a death sentence
Longtime Syracuse-area residents living with HIV and AIDS are reflecting on the medical progress that has enabled them to full lives.
On Thursday, ACR Health marked World AIDS Day with testimonials, free HIV screenings, COVID vaccines and other community resources.
Les Wright has been diagnosed with HIV for 42 years and contracted it when cases of the auto-immune disease emerged. The retired college professor said he turned out to be one of the rare “slow progressors.”
He said he owes his life to a drug breakthrough in the 1990s.
"I was very fortunate that by the time I was beginning to have health issues, the three-drug cocktail came out in '96. That saved me cause I was just beginning to go into that decline," Wright said.
Wright, who is also a gay activist, said he assumed he was infected after spending time in San Francisco in 1979. Many of his friends died of AIDS-related diseases a short time later. But Wright was determined to pursue his two dreams: Completing his Ph.D. and landing a tenure track job as a literature professor.
"My decision was to just you know keep going on until you know I couldn't anymore," Wright said. "And I was one of those people—I mean some guys committed suicide."
After being diagnosed in 2004, Shelly Jenkins thought she would be another victim to die from the disease. Her brother died from AIDS three years after he was diagnosed in the early 1990s. She said it’s natural to believe a diagnosis is a death sentence if you aren’t educated about HIV.
"We always fear that the worst will happen next," Jenkins said. "But it's that initial connection with an agency or someone just as simple as me, that can be able to talk to them, educate them, to let them know, to reassure them that it's not the end of your life. This is the beginning of a new chapter in your life."
Jenkins is a state-certified HIV and AIDS peer worker for Central New York. She educates people about the disease and connects them to medical care and other services. She said homelessness and drug addiction are significant barriers to diagnosis and care, but the stigma is also a major challenge.
"That’s where they fall short of themselves," Jenkins said. "Because they'll end up stop taking their medicines they won’t go to the doctor, because of the shame and the guilt, and that causes them to do more harm to themselves than anything."
Jenkins was just named a spokesmodel for HIV Stops With Me, and her profile will be posted next month. In that role, she’ll continue educating those living with and without HIV and AIDS.