At the height of her career as an accountant for a major corporation, Kim Wilson was stricken with an unexplainable sickness that left her hospitalized for half a year.
Though she had had bouts with illness in the past that had knocked her down, they never took her out. She always managed to bounce back, regaining her health and moving forward with her personal and professional goals.
But not this time.
A Philly native, Wilson moved to Boston in her 20s to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She was working on her master’s and climbing the corporate ladder when her lengthy sickness forced her to withdraw from classes and quit her job.
Somehow, Wilson sensed even before she was diagnosed that she might have contracted HIV. Throughout her hospital stay, she begged her doctor for an HIV test, but they repeatedly refused to administer one.
“When I asked for an HIV test a week before I was diagnosed, I was told, ‘That test does not apply to you,’” Wilson says. “My doctor at the time told me, ‘You do not fit that category.’”
But even in the face of her doctor’s insinuation that well-educated, financially stable, professional African American women don’t contract HIV, Wilson persisted. “I asked for an HIV test seven times before the doctors gave me one,” she says.
What makes Wilson’s story all the more disturbing is that she was diagnosed just four years ago.
After more than 20 years of HIV/AIDS research, education and prevention efforts, many people — including healthcare professionals — still believe that only certain people contract HIV/AIDS. The numbers, however, paint a different picture.
Currently, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25 and 34 and is the second leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 35 and 44 — women just like Wilson.
While Wilson was able to recognize some of the symptoms, thanks to the many years she’d spent volunteering for AIDS Action Committee and other HIV/AIDS organizations, many other women don’t. She believes lack of awareness about the disease has led many in the African American community to accept myths about HIV/AIDS and stigmatize patients, oftentimes in an effort to mask the fear that they could be next.
She came face-to-face with that reality in the unlikeliest of places — the hair salon.
“I used to go to the hairdresser all the time. I used to have the nice, long hair, get a perm every few weeks, you know. [When] my hairdresser found out I had HIV, the next time I went to the salon, when she did my hair, she wore thick rubber gloves. Every comb, every curler she put in my hair, she put in a separate bag,” Wilson recalls. “When I asked her why she was doing this, she told me, ‘What you have, I don’t want my other clients to get.’”
The hairdresser’s remark proved the perfect opportunity for Wilson to use information to fight ignorance.
“I said to her, ‘That client sitting in that chair, or that chair or that chair — any one of them could have HIV. At least I know my status,’ ” Wilson says. “After getting my hair done that time, I went to her, I gave her information [about HIV/AIDS] and I gave friends of ours that she knew information. And through educating them, they helped me educate her.”
Wilson continues to educate people about the disease, confronting the myths by telling her story every chance she gets. She also works as a peer advocate at AIDS Action Committee, where she helps other HIV/AIDS patients connect to services that help to create more stability in their lives.
It was participating in the agency’s annual AIDS Walk more than a decade ago that inspired Wilson to begin working to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds for life-sustaining programs and resources for patients. A friend, who has since passed from the disease, encouraged her to join him for the walk. To this day, Wilson remembers the joy she felt in being able to connect with her friends to support an important cause.
“The first year we did it, we did it to keep him company. And we liked it — we had a good time together, it was a blast. And I just continued doing it,” she says.
“I’ll never forget: one year, I was really sick that year. It was before I got diagnosed. And I encouraged a whole group of people at my job to walk. I was like, ‘You guys, go out there, walk, it’s the first week of June. I can’t walk, but it’s a great cause. Go out there, volunteer. The people at the agency are really, really nice.’ And my friends went out and did it.”
After her diagnosis, she turned to AIDS Action for assistance with rebuilding her life.
“When I got out of the hospital, I had no job. I had to live with a friend of mine for a year and a half. [Through AIDS Action], I learned a lot about the service system — where to get food stamps, how to get disability, how to get help for housing and funding for medication.”
Although her diagnosis is a large part of why she chose to work as an advocate, she says a lifelong love of caring for others was also a big factor. “I’ve always liked to help people,” she says. “I just thought, if [AIDS Action] could help me, I know I could help someone else.”
The 26th annual AIDS Action Committee AIDS Walk/Run takes place Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the DCR Hatchshell. For more information, visit www.aac.org .