In 1991, at the age of 24, Michelle Lopez found herself in a situation that was about as desperate as it could get. She came to this country from Trinidad with her aunt at the age of 16, and as an undocumented immigrant she could not get a green card. Addicted to cocaine herself, she was in an abusive relationship with a crack user who battered her every day. Her son, Rondell, was living with her parents, and her daughter, Raven, just 8 months old, was with her. She had recently learned that someone she had been sexually involved with passed away from AIDS.
“One night after a bad beating I took my daughter, got on the train, and started riding,” Michelle says. “I was praying hard, and then I saw a sign that said, ‘If you need help, call this number.’”
Flash forward twelve years to today, and Michelle’s circumstances have changed dramatically—thanks both to her own fierce determination and to help from a number of agencies and organizations dedicated to helping the vulnerable. The number she saw on the sign as she was riding the train that night was for New York’s Community Healthcare Network, and today Michelle is the Coordinator of their Access to Healthcare Program. Diagnosed with HIV shortly after she made that call, she has seen her CD4+T cells drop below 200, she’s battled opportunistic infections including PCP pneumonia and cervical cancer, and she’s struggled with treatment regimens that had horrible side-effects. But today she has a regimen that works for her—Kaletra and Trizivir—her viral load is below 2,000 and her T-cells have bounced back to 1,026. She no longer takes drugs, she has come to terms with her gay sexuality, and with her partner Kitty she provides a stable family life for her two children. Her daughter, Raven, is also HIV-positive, while her partner and her son are HIV-negative.
When asked about her keys to success, Michelle quickly says, “You’ve got to give back. There are doors that are open. As people of color, we need to know every opportunity to talk to other PWAs. We need to be sitting on decision-making bodies. We need to identify leadership qualities within ourselves, be involved in the community, and get away from ‘us vs. them.’”
Michelle serves on the Board of Directors for the Bronx AIDS Services, a designated community service provider, where she coordinates care and prevention services for individuals infected and at risk for HIV. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the National Association of People with AIDS, the only national organization dedicated to people with AIDS. Additionally, she participates as a parent advocate through the community advisory board for Jacobi Medical Center’s AIDS program.
Previously, Michelle served on the Community Advisory Board of Bronx Lebanon Hospital’s AIDS Clinical Trial Unit as well as the New York City HIV Planning Council. In addition, she worked as an AIDS advocate with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health.
Michelle today lives a healthy lifestyle and is very much in tune with her spirituality. “I found a church three years ago that accepts me for who I am,” Michelle says. “My religion is Orisha Shango. We believe in God but also uplift our ancestors. That is what has completed my menu.”
What advice would she give others in her situation?
“I would introduce someone in my situation to the community,” Michelle says. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. But you can live with it. Do not feed into the stigma. There is support out there. Don’t isolate or segregate yourself. You can find the entity that will give you the support and love you need. There’s a community of people with HIV or AIDS living functional and productive lives, and they will welcome you.”
“I came into this as an immigrant,” Michelle says. “And it’s very intimidating to be in that position. But I got involved and learned not to let my immigrant status undermine me. Ask questions. Get educated and treated because you’re worth it! Find that open door and go through it.”
Copyright 2018, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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