Shana knew her mom was sick. At just 20 years old, Shana had dropped out of college and put her dreams of a career in the music industry on pause to take care of her. Suddenly their days were filled with doctors’ offices, medications and physical therapy appointments. Whatever it was, it was serious. But when the doctor suggested testing her mom for HIV, Shana was sure he was wrong.
"Even then, I felt like she couldn’t have HIV. I didn’t know anybody who had it. I didn’t think this could happen to me, or to anybody in my circle or family.” But Shana’s mom tested HIV positive. Left undiagnosed and untreated for too long, her mom’s HIV infection had damaged her immune system, which meant she was at risk for other infections as well.
A lot of people ask me if I have HIV myself. And I say, 'Does it matter?'
Huddled around her mom’s hospital bed with her brother and aunt, Shana was devastated—and a little afraid. After all, she didn’t know anything about HIV besides what people said. And people said all kinds of sketchy things. “To be honest, the first thought that went through my mind was ‘Don’t touch her,’” remembers Shana. “But then the second thought immediately was ‘This is my mother. Why would I treat my mom that way? I have so much love and respect for my mom, why would I treat her so badly?’ That’s when I embraced her.”
Two and a half weeks later, Shana’s mom died of an AIDS-related illness. And Shana quickly learned how lonely mourning someone who had lived with HIV could be. Friends and family were sympathetic…but awkward. People didn’t know how to talk about her mom’s diagnosis, and sometimes said hurtful things. A few people even asked Shana if she had HIV, too.
That’s when Shana found support in an unlikely place: an HIV testing clinic. The test only took a few minutes, but the fatherly clinician who took her blood, Jim, sat with Shana for more than an hour just listening to her story. He even came to her mother’s funeral. And he encouraged Shana to tell other about what she’d lost—and learned.
Now Shana shares her experiences and knowledge to challenge HIV stigma. And it’s something she hopes others will do, too. “If we can take the time to learn true facts about HIV, we can teach other,” says Shana. “Each one, teach one.”