Keeping a promise

Mom with HIV teaches others the dangers of unprotected sex

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

VACAVILLE - Debra McCarthy, 49, lives her life as if she is taking her last breath.

Twenty-one years ago, McCarthy was at work when she received a phone call from her doctor. The results of her HIV test were in a sealed envelope waiting to be opened.

Bearing limited patience after a two-week wait, she demanded the doctor open the envelope while on the phone. Seconds later, McCarthy was informed she was HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) positive.

Her head felt like it would explode and she couldn't breathe. The voice on the phone seemed muffled and monotone.

She remembers asking the doctor if she would die. And she recalls all too vividly the quick response of "yes."

McCarthy, then 28 and three months pregnant, was given five to seven years of life - a death sentence she had no intentions of accepting. She was told to "think about abortion."

It was then she made a promise to God - "Let my child be HIV-negative and I'll go out and stop other people from getting this garbage."

He listened and she kept her word.

McCarthy is an AIDS education specialist for Solano County Substance Abuse Services and has been educating the public on HIV/AIDS for 19 years.
She spends hours each week presenting a 90-minute video flooded with HIV/AIDS awareness information mixed with personal experiences and passionate stories that bring tears to the listener's eyes.

McCarthy cries at times as her suppressed pain surfaces.

"From my son, I learned a priceless gift. I proved I can love people every day without having sex. It's so powerful that it has healed me and kept me whole, to be here today to carry this message," she said of her son, Kevin McCarthy, at Wednesday's meeting in Vacaville. "He's the only right thing I did in my life."

There are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 infected individuals with HIV living in Solano County (excluding California Medical Facility in Vacaville), said Peter Turner, Solano County supervising health education specialists. This is a small portion of the 36.1 million men, women and children worldwide who are estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS as of 2006.

About 15,000 people are infected with HIV, not AIDS, each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention.

"HIV means they have the virus. It doesn't mean they have AIDS - AIDS is the diagnosis," Turner said. "Today, if you get tested HIV-positive, you get care and medicine, which may prevent you from getting AIDS."

And such medicine, in this case Atripala, has helped keep McCarthy alive.

"But not all people will get as lucky as me," McCarthy said.

Wake up

McCarthy feels like more of a person by having HIV.

As she stood in front of the class, her expression vibrant as the blue velour slacks she wore, her calling in life is obvious.

"My whole life work has been teaching other people how not to get this," she said. "And I'm on the right side of the fence."

She can openly say she has the gift of knowing that she'll die before her time and said she finishes every day thinking she may not wake up the next morning. She is empowered knowing she has touched thousands of lives with her words.

But more people have to help.

"How many people have to die before we wake up? That's what I want to know," she said, her voice scratchy as tears rolled down her cheeks.

According to State Health Facts, there have been 82,738 reported deaths in California among persons with AIDS between 1981 and 2005.

"It's the leading cause of death between the ages of 25 and 44," McCarthy said during her presentation.

Changes are taking place, however.

As the world commemorates World AIDS Day today, 25 years after the first case was reported, a glimpse into the past reveals some hope for the future.

"There has been new medications released which helps health care providers to better create regimens of medications to suppress the virus," said Dr. Mark Maus, Solano County physician manager for the family health clinic and attending physician for HIV services. "And with the HIV virus suppression, the patient's immune system gets stronger, they live healthier and longer."

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, damages and destroys many different cells of the immune system. When these cells - T-cells - are destroyed, the body can't recognize infections.

Medication available today limits the ability of the virus to reproduce and helps protect the immune system and improves chances of staying healthy.

The typical life span of an untreated person with HIV is about 10 to 15 years, Maus said. But for those under medication, their life span is still unknown.

"We don't have an answer because these medications have been out for 10 years," Maus said. "The predictions for a person with HIV is expected to live 20 to 30 years with treatment that are available and probably longer."

Solano County offers free anonymous HIV antibody testing at various sites, including at 1201 Courage Drive in Fairfield at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and at 355 Tuolumne St., in Vallejo at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

The cost

Having unprotected sex for "the fun of it" may seem like a good idea at the time, but having HIV is not, McCarthy stated during her meeting.

Of the estimated number of AIDS cases from 1981 to 2004, 441,000 cases were caused from male-to-male sexual contact while 249,000 were caused from injection drug use, according to CDC.

Using a condom can reduce the risk, not eliminate, the chances of becoming HIV positive, McCarthy said. The best way is abstinence.

Cost is also a huge factor. If not for insurance, McCarthy would pay $1,500 a month for her medicine.

"It's very expensive," she said.

According to CDC, the total HIV/AIDS federal funding for fiscal year 2005 was $358 million. The total for United States was almost $3 billion.

The cost in Solano County for uninsured AIDS patients is nearly zero, said Maus, because state and federal program provides medication for nearly every patient.

"If you're uninsured or if you have MediCal, there is access to these medications and we have access to these programs," he said, and mentioned the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program as one.

Turning to faith

St. Stephen C.M.E. Church wants to be an advocate for AIDS.

Rose Mary Lewis, a recording steward at the church, is hoping for a change in the parish with more than 350 members.

"The faith community had not been an advocate for AIDS education. They had been really silent on this issue," she said.

As a result of its change, the church, together with the Solano HIV Prevention Network, is hosting an observance from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday presenting the Solano AIDS quilt that was created last year by community members. The event will also have music and poetry.

Since 1983, 1,440 people in Solano County have been diagnosed with AIDS, of which 714 have died, Turner said.

The church, with a predominantly black membership, is also addressing the issue of AIDS in the black community, which represents 15 percent of the population in Solano County.

According to Turner, 33 percent of the AIDS cases in Solano County are black and 50 percent of the cases are black female women.

"It really hit home about how the statistics are showing a disproportionate number of African Americans being infected with HIV," Lewis said. "So we're trying to educate them about HIV so that they could lead a better life."

As for McCarthy, she will continue to educate the public, even if it means being "wheeled in."

"It's not a moral issue, it's a health issue," she said. "People think it's killing the right kind of people. It's not."