AIDS activist: Still more work to be done

Kendra Graves | 5/30/2012, 7:56 a.m.

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.