Life After My Diagnosis
I never would have thought that I would have contracted HIV my first time having sex, but it's sad to say that I thought at some point in my life I would contract HIV. It didn’t become my reality until it became my reality. I kept hearing that only gay people contracted HIV and die from it. That it was God's way of punishing the gay community for living wrong.
Making the decision to get an HIV test
I didn’t get tested for HIV until I was 17 going on 18. It took me so long to get tested because I was very afraid to find out my status and I was only focused on going to work to make money to survive. I felt ready to have sex again because I wanted to be in a relationship, but didn’t want to enter into one without knowing my status.
It was difficult waiting for the results
I went to a local clinic to get tested for HIV. Back then, it took weeks for me to get my results which drove me crazy. I'm not a religious person, but I'm very spiritual. I was praying to every god known to man. “Please God, please Jesus, please Jah, please Allah, don’t let me have this disease.” Throwing pennies in wishing wells and fountains, wishing and hoping I didn’t have HIV.
When the two weeks were up for me to go back to get my results, I didn’t want to. All that kept going through my head was “What if I have it...what am I going to do...who can I turn to...who’s going to love me if I have it... what is my family going to say... I don’t want to go. I don’t want to find out, but I need to find out so that I will at least know.”
Gathering the strength to get the HIV test result
I got the strength to get up and go get my result. I walked into the clinic and everything started happening in slow motion. The doctor called me back to her office. As we were walking back to her office, it seemed as if time stopped. She sat me down, the door closed in slow motion. I started hearing violins. I'm looking around like "What’s happening?"
It was almost something you see out of a movie, but this was really happening. When she opened my chart and the words rolled out of her mouth, "Mr. Serrano... HIV positive..." It rolled in one ear and out the other. I didn’t look nor did I feel like had HIV. I took my test results, left that clinic, and never returned there.
How I started engaging in HIV care
What got me engaged with my health care was when I became a peer educator for Montefiore Hospital. I was handing out condoms and asking people to take a free HIV test at high-risk areas in the Bronx. It felt great to be giving back to my community but I also felt like a hypocrite. Here I am, asking people to take care of their status and I know mine but I'm not doing anything about it.
A team of people to keep me healthy
At the end of that work summer, I became very comfortable with the staff at Montefiore and disclosed my status to my supervisor. She immediately took me down to the clinic. They retested me and, of course, the result came back positive. On that day, it finally hit me that I'm HIV positive.
I needed a team of five to keep me healthy. I had a nurse practitioner, a doctor, a social worker, a nutritionist, and a therapist. My doctor visits went from being 15 minutes to hours. I never wanted to go and see my doctor because I felt ashamed about having HIV. I only went to the doctor to get rid of any opportunistic infection I was experiencing.
Starting HIV medication for treatment
I didn’t want to get on medication because I heard about the horrible side effects. I told myself that being that I'm going to die, I will pursue everything that I want in life. I graduated from high school, went to college. I started background dancing and modeling professionally. Traveling throughout the US performing and modeling. Life was great for me at this point of my life.
Making my health a priority
But HIV had different plans for me. I was so busy pursuing my life dreams, I barely went to the doctor. My CD4 cells went down to an AIDS diagnosis and I was also diagnosed with a cancer named Kaposi sarcoma. AIDS and cancer. I said "Hell no. I can't deal with both." Something had to give.
I got myself highly educated about HIV and AIDS and kept on my medication. The cancer went into remission and my CD4 cells went back over 200 and my viral load became undetectable.
Taking back my life from HIV/AIDS
I've been through a lot in life, but I never allowed what I been through to hold me back. AIDS will not be the end of me and neither should it be for you.
Living with HIV/AIDS, you need a great support system. Without mine, I don't know where I would be. My support system has encouraged me to use my story to advocate for my HIV/AIDS community. To never let anything or anyone stop you from doing God's work.
Don’t allow HIV/AIDS to win and take over your body. I fought back and took back my life.
How often does someone offer you unsolicited advice on your health?