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The Journey of a 75 year old grandfather with HIV/AIDS to U=U

My name is Dennis. In November 1992, I had a loving wife, two beautiful children, and a cat. I was selling time shares to Condos at a luxury seaside building in Atlantic City. One day I noticed a small, painful red blister on my back. My Doctor diagnosed me with a shingles outbreak. It is an indicator of HIV. My Doctor advised me to take a HIV test. My test came back positive for HIV. There was still some pain and sleep deprivation from the shingles, so when the doctor told me the bad news, I was somewhat numb. The devastating news wrecked my upcoming Birthday. I would have been 50 on Dec. 26th. Fugetaboutit! At the time, there wasn't any treatment for HIV. The prevailing view was HIV = AIDS = Death. I think the bad news gave me a mental breakdown.

People living with HIV are aging Adults aged 50 years and older now represent the largest group of people living with HIV/AIDS. This group includes long-term survivors (LTS) who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS before the advent of antiretroviral therapy in 1996. People within these groups often experience higher rates of illnesses associated with aging including cardiovascular, liver and kidney diseases, cancers, frailty, and osteoporosis. They may also be socially isolated due to HIV/AIDS stigma and have higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and loneliness as they age. I had an mental breakdown.

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Thinking about my approaching death was enough reason for me to start taking drugs. Crack was my drug of choice. Atlantic City is about gambling not crack. I put my sight on New York City's epidemic of crack cocaine. It was in full swing. For years, I lived a fast life. I robbed jewelry stores during the day and I partied all night. They say all good things come to an end. Police, acting on a tip from an informant, set up overnight police surveillance of my apartment. They arrested me as I was putting my key in the door of my stolen car. I was taken straight to the police station and charged with being the leader of a city ‘wide crime spree’! Three of the victims identified me from a lineup. I was taken to an arraignment in criminal court. I plead not guilty. A grand Jury indicted me for 3 arm robberies. After spending a year working on my case in a city Jail, a judge found me guilty of two robberies. I was sentenced to two concurrent sentences of 8 to 15 years in prison. It was 1992!My status was disclosed when I was incarceratedI was sent to Maximum Security Prisons because I had an escape on my criminal record. First, I was sent to Sing Sing for orientation. It’s the prison with the electric chair. That didn't bother me. It was the convicted homicidal maniacs eyeballing me! I was paranoid! Prison snitches may have told them about my confidential HIV status. Convicts call HIV or AIDS the ‘Monster’! The 411 on the grapevine was that anybody with the 'monster' must die! I quickly realized my life was at risk. It was best for me to be quiet about my HIV status. There is no question, I was afraid but I dealt with it. I became a Jailhouse Lawyer. I helped many young gangsters with their appeals. My reputation grew until I had the ‘Bloods’ giving me protection. In 90 days, I was sent to Comstock Prison. They called it Gladiator School. There was a fight everyday. One day, a guy we called Red, took Bobby B’s tea bag without his permission. A prison snitch told Bobby B. who took his tea. Bobby B. waited for Red to walk by his cell. Red walked nonchalantly by and Bobby B. jumped him and stabbed him in the neck. It was a bloody mess. The prison guards came and took Red away. Nobody saw him again. One year passed and it seemed like an eternity. One cold morning, I was sent to Clinton Correctional Prison. The ‘Prison’ is up north next to Canada. It was very cold most of the time. One cold and lonely night, I prayed that God would save me. Suddenly, there appeared ‘silver rain’ falling on my head. I kept saying ‘Thank you God,Thank You’! I jumped up in the air several times.Tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt like a new man! My celebrations weren’t over when miraculously, my appeal was granted. A criminal court Judge dropped my outstanding 2 cases on a technicality and the last pending case was reduced to a misdemeanor. I was given time served and I walked out of the courtroom a free man determined to make a difference in the AIDS epidemic.
Education Among Communities of ColorAs a longtime community organizer and public health activist living with HIV, I recognized the urgent need to educate black and Latino people at risk for HIV. This led me to create the ‘Black and Latino AIDS Coalition’ (B.L.A.C.). Bishop Betty Middleton, President of ‘Pentecostal Church of All Nations’, donated furnished office space to B.L.A.C. in a central Harlem Brownstone. B.L.A.C'.s mission is to educate black and Latina men and women about HIV/AIDS and connect them with vital services. One of B.L.A.C. 's biggest achievement was helping to pass Assemblywoman Nettie Myersohn’s ‘Partner Notification’ legislation. It says ‘People’ who test positive for HIV and other 'Sexually Transmitted Diseases', will be contacted by the health department. They will be given several options to notify sexual or drug injection partners 'that they may have been exposed to an infectious disease.’ I was one of Myersohn’s organizers and educators. Through B.L.A.C. initiatives, I educated 1,000s of black and Latino women and men about ‘Partner Notification’. Most of them took HIV tests. Those individuals found to be positive were treated with understanding, compassion, and they were given a referral to an appropriate HIV organization or Doctor. Benefits of medical marijuanaOver the years, I faced personal challenges as an HIV-positive individual. I sought alternative means to manage my condition. I discovered the medicinal benefits of medical marijuana. I began using medical marijuana (M.M.) to treat the side-effects to AIDS Medicines. The M.M. worked to reduce the side effects like upset stomach and diarrhea. I was having difficulty buying legal medical marijuana. I negotiated agreements for my organization B.L.A.C. to collaborate with Empire State N.O.R.M.L., the 'Drug Policy Alliance' (D.P.A.), and Harlem United. At this time, State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) introduced the ‘Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (M.R.T.A.)’. The legislation would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana under state law along lines similar to the state’s current system regulating alcohol. B.L.A.C. became a supporter of Senator Krueger’s legislation. B.L.A.C. also advocated for the medical use of marijuana too. Joining the legalization effortIn the year 2012, I embarked on yet another significant endeavor. I organized the 'New York State Committee to Legalize Marijuana' (N.Y.S.C.T.L.M.), a grassroots movement aimed at legalizing marijuana in New York. With unwavering determination, I grew N.Y.S.CT.L.M. and amassed an impressive following of over 17,000 supporters on Facebook. Marijuana in New York is legal for medical and recreational purposes under New York law since 2021. We owe our gratitude and thanks to Senator Krueger and many other organizations! Their collective advocacy helped lead to the legalization of marijuana in New York State. Today, countless individuals are benefiting from Senator Krueger's M.R.T.A. bill. I’m thankful for my vision and perseverance in New York's legalization of Marijuana! Despite my age, I remain an active figure in my community, continuing to fight for the rights of the marginalized and amplify their voices. I’m an active member of 'Rev. Al Sharpton's 'National Action Network (N.A.N). I co-founded N.A.N.’s ‘Second Chance Committee’. It helps newly released women and men from prison make a constructive reentry to their community. It also serves as a resource to help with housing and jobs. I created a template i.e. set-up plans for the ‘Second Chance Committee’. It continues to function today with my co-chairman leading the committee. My journey is a testament to the transformative power of compassion, education, and advocacy in creating a more inclusive and just society.
This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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