"When I was told, I was numb. I can remember just being numb," said Gardner, 55, who contracted HIV in December 2006 from having intimate relations with her boyfriend. "What I did after I was told is I went to my apartment and I sat down, pulled all the shades and closed the curtains. I just wanted to be in darkness because that's what I felt. I thank God for my daughter. She came over with my twin grandbabies, who at the time were 3. ... What do you tell 3-year-old twins [so] they can understand -- so that they could be quiet and let Granny just go ahead and drop into the darkness she was trying to reach into? There wasn't nothing I could tell them.
"So Granny had to be Granny and from that point on, I made up my mind I can't lay back. I can't sit back and let this happen and keep happening. I don't want my nephews to have it. I don't want my nieces to have it. I don't want my grandbabies to have it. I don't want my children to have it. And in order to keep them from having it, I [also] have to keep you from having it.'"
To help stop the transmission of HIV and AIDS, Gardner is addressing the community Monday at Cartersville's National HIV Testing Day program at St. Luke A.M.E. Church, 130 Jones St. Organized by the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia, of which Gardner is a client, the 6 p.m. offering also is featuring presentations from Marie Bonner, whose relative died from AIDS, and staff members from the Cartersville-based organization.
"For the general public, sometimes it's hard to understand HIV and the impact of HIV on an individual or a family unless they actually know someone or hear someone talk about it," said Lola Thomas, executive director for the AIDS Alliance, which serves about 110 HIV/AIDS clients, ranging in age from 13 to 70, in 10 northwest Georgia counties. "You don't get that from statistics in the newspaper or articles that you read about HIV. It takes putting a face on the epidemic.
"So for us what having a speaker does is to present the face of AIDS for people so that they can relate to other issues. It sometimes gets them past barriers that they may have or misunderstandings that they may have and provide some enlightenment about the hardships that people may experience."
Ideally, her story will motivate those in attendance to be tested for the virus. A prime example of the importance of early detection, Gardner is not taking any medication for the virus, since her T-cell count still is normal.
"I want them to know that people that are living with HIV and AIDS are just like them," Gardner said. "HIV is just like diabetes. It's something you have to live with, take your pills for it, and you keep going. You can't get it by ... touching, by hugging, by eating after me, by drinking after me. It can't jump off of me, and until we get to a point where we start talking about it, it's going to stay isolating [for people living with HIV]. It's going to spread like wildfire among our children, because our children don't know how [it is transmitted] or [what] it is."
Along with the evening program, the AIDS Alliance also is offering free HIV testing on Monday in honor of National HIV Testing Day. On a walk-in basis, testing is going to be conducted at St. Luke A.M.E. Church from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and at the AIDS Alliance office, 775 West Ave., Suite E, in Cartersville, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. During the free, anonymous test, a swab is rubbed on a person's top and bottom gums, then placed into a solution that measures HIV enzymes. Results are available in 20 minutes and pre- and post-counseling also is provided.
"June 27 is National HIV Testing Day," said Annie Carter, director of HIV Testing and Preventive Services for the AIDS Alliance. "The purpose of this day is to get as many people as possible tested because it's a proven fact that if you know your status, you can take better care of yourself. ... We want to get as many people as possible tested.
"We also want to educate people, get the information out there about HIV and AIDS and how to protect themselves from becoming infected with HIV and AIDS," she said, adding HIV primarily is transmitted through engaging in unprotected sex, using infected syringes or needles, or from an infected mother to her child. "But the most important thing is that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says one out of five people [who] are infected [do not] even know they are. So if we can get them tested, and if they are positive and [we] get them into treatment, they will be able to live a long, productive life, because it's no longer a death sentence. It's a chronic disease at this time. [But] I don't want to minimize the fact for people to say, 'Well if I get it, I'll just take medication.' It's not that simple. It's [still] a life-changing disease."
The CDC data also reveals that more than 1 million Americans currently are living with HIV. With blacks accounting for nearly half of those diagnosed, the CDC attributes this "epidemic" to a wide range of factors, from socioeconomic issues and stigma to an increased rate of sexually transmitted diseases.
According to www.cdc.gov, "AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection, when a person's immune system is severely damaged and has difficulty fighting diseases and certain cancers. Before the development of certain medications, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Currently, people can live much longer -- even decades -- with HIV before they develop AIDS. This is because of 'highly active' combinations of medications that were introduced in the mid-1990s."
While the AIDS Alliance was not in existence when the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S. by the CDC on June 5, 1981, Thomas said there has been dramatic changes since the nonprofit's inception 20 years ago regarding treatment and the face of HIV and AIDS.
"We went through years of just continuing with deaths and little hope," Thomas said. "When someone came to us as newly diagnosed in [the 1990s], it was more of a death sentence. We found ourselves as the AIDS Alliance in the position of helping people get through and journey along with them as they died.
"Then came the years that we're still in of good news in that more powerful medications came along that helped people begin to be able to feel with some confidence that actually they could live. They could survive with this. And as we've gone along, more and better medications have come along, and people living with HIV have gone from, in the earlier years, having to take 20 pills a day down to, in some cases, being able to take one."
This development also helped change the mindset of people living with HIV because Thomas said their lives did not have to revolve around a rigid daily schedule of taking medications.
"I think that has brought with it for people living with HIV a way that they have been able to fit HIV into their lives in a more normal way," she said. "We like to say to people, 'HIV is only one aspect of your life. Don't treat HIV like it is your life. Don't let everything revolve around the fact that you have HIV because life is made up of many things, and if you have HIV you have to learn to deal with it and part of dealing with it is learning to accept it and not let it just totally overwhelm you.'"
In addition to free HIV testing at its office on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the AIDS Alliance offers numerous services, such as transporting clients to medical appointments, a food pantry, support groups and a HUD housing program. Through its educational and prevention offerings, the nonprofit reaches at least 2,000 people each year.
In February, the AIDS Alliance also launched a street outreach campaign. Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Community Health, the initiative requires the nonprofit to provide education and HIV tests to at least 250 and 500 black individuals, respectively, by the end of 2011. Along with passing out literature and items at various locations, AIDS Alliance staff is conducting HIV tests on-site, if individuals desire.
"We've seen a big change over the years we've been here with the people that it has impacted. In the very early days we had more men coming to us," Thomas said. "More times than not those men were Caucasian, 20s and 30s. That has shifted so that what I like to say is, 'That when the phone rings now, we have no idea who may be on the other end,' because we have a lot more women, and certainly as time went on we began to see a shift with more of a racial mix of people coming our way. So that shifted as well."
For more information about the AIDS Alliance, contact the nonprofit at 770-606-0953.