“To some I’m a mother, sister, aunt,” Mildred Richard said in a happy, joyful tone when The New Tri-State Defender sat down with her.
She has been HIV-positive since Oct. 30, 2000. That’s 17 years of living with the virus that causes AIDS, 17 years of medicine, 17 years of blood tests and 17 years of stigma.
“I found out I was positive while giving birth to my son, Malachi,” Richard said. “It was joy that was snatched from me because of the diagnosis, and the fact I was bringing home the child of a rapist.
“Where I’m from, they didn’t call it HIV. They called it ‘the package.’ Had she told me I had the package, I would’ve fallen out right then and there.”
HIV rates tend to skyrocket in places where emphasis on sex education is limited. Painfully often that means poor, black neighborhoods.
According to aidsvu.org, a site that keeps data on persons living with HIV based on where they call home, Frayser was and still is an HIV hotspot. According to the site, for every 100,000 people in Memphis, 1,119 were living with diagnosed HIV.
HIV strikes more in African-American communities. It’s often known as a “gay disease,” but as Richard shows, it can be passed to women, as well.
According to the Shelby County Health Department, there were 6,481 people living with HIV/AIDS in 2016. The county rate of people living with HIV is 690, which is three times higher than the state rate, and two times higher than the national rate.
Of that 6,481, men totaled 4,484. Forty-two percent of that number were men who had sex with men (MSM).
The thought of knowing you have HIV is heartbreaking. Talking about it can be tough, too.
“There are those who know, and those who don’t want to know,” Richard said.
She said her relationship with her parents is strained.
“I’m not welcome in my father’s home,” Richard said. “I have to sit on the porch. Rain sleet or snow – my dad is uncomfortable around me.”
She would hope the family would be more willing to talk about it. Her son didn’t contract the virus, despite being exposed to it. The virus claimed her sister’s life weeks after Richard’s son was born.
“She used to say, ‘I have sickle cell,’ but I knew it was something more than that.”
Richard had hoped she could help her sister get through it, now that they both had the virus.
“I think she gave up hope,” Richard said. “She’d been treated so badly by family.”
Richard decided she couldn’t sit around and remain sad. She needed to know more about the virus that had killed her sister and could kill her.
“Every morning, I’m waking up pissed off, because I’m still alive. I decided to learn what I’m living with – or dying from,” she said.
That’s when Richard decided to learn more about the virus.
Things got better for her too. She found love – her husband, Rick Edwards, who she says is phenomenal.
“My husband came at a time when I didn’t think I was worthy of being loved. Who wants to marry the girl with AIDS? What’s wrong with you? What you got?”
The decision to marry Richard was not an easy one.
“His family disowned him. He has children he hasn’t seen in years because he married the girl with AIDS.”
Edwards remains HIV-negative, although he has other health issues.
“He’s a protector, he’s a provider. He was patient. He accepted me, my flaws. He was heaven-sent. Fifteen years – he’s not said a mean word or walked away from me,” Richard said. “He’s not ashamed to tell people, ‘I married the girl with AIDS and I love her to death.’”
Time went by. Her marriage was nice, happy, prosperous. It wasn’t until her vow renewal ceremony that things took a turn for the worse.
“I couldn’t fit into my dress. I was breaking out in sores and bumps. Here I am thinking it’s stress.”
Turns out it was shingles – an infection that comes from having chickenpox, often decades earlier. Shingles normally doesn’t infect healthy people. However, those with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop it.
“I had what was known as an opportunistic infection,” Richard said.
Opportunistic infections and diseases such as Kaposi Sarcoma, toxoplasmosis and shingles can signal someone has AIDS. That means HIV has depleted the body’s CD4 count to where the body can’t fend off these diseases that a normally healthy immune system could.
“It was then my doctors decided it was time for me to start treatment.”
Richard takes a triple cocktail of drugs, and now her immune system is back to full strength.
“When you get that AIDS diagnosis, you can get better, but you’ll wear that tag for life,” Richard said.
Her viral load is now undetectable – meaning the presence of HIV in her body is so low, it’s not replicating, nor doing any damage to her immune system – making chances of transmission nearly impossible, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Today, Richard is still undetectable. She’s still happily married. Her son is getting ready to graduate from high school – and she’s living a fabulous life with AIDS.
Richard is a counselor at Friends For Life on South Cleveland in Midtown Memphis, helping anyone who walks through those doors looking for care.
She shares her story on the radio, in churches, anywhere anyone will welcome her to talk and inspire.
“I promote hope,” she said. “I sell life. That’s what I do.”