Originally published Dec. 12, 2011
Eighteen years ago, Tiná Washington thought she had dodged a bullet. After finding out that her former fiancé was HIV positive, she got tested. The test came back negative. Nine months after that test, Tiná couldn’t shake a cold and knew something was wrong. She got tested again. This time, the results changed her life.
“I tested positive but I didn’t cry or break down,” she said. “I made a choice and I have to deal with it. I have always been raised that when there’s a problem, you figure out how to tackle it.”
That positive attitude has helped Washington through 18 years of physical and emotional ups and downs. After testing positive, she struggled to find a medical regimen that would work. Initially, she was told she had three months to live. That’s when she met Dr. Debbie Hagins, the Coastal Health District’s Clinical Director for HIV Outpatient Services.
“Dr. Hagins literally threw every medicine bottle I had in the garbage and started me on a new regimen,” said Washington. “My numbers changed dramatically within two weeks and I’ve stayed on track ever since.”
After her interaction with Dr. Hagins, Washington began volunteering to help other HIV positive patients in Brunswick, Georgia, by driving them to the clinic to receive services. She recalls that initially, those getting on the bus to be transported were nervous. But Washington quickly changed that.
“When someone got on the bus I would immediately say, ‘Everybody here is positive, including the driver,’ and that put them at ease,” said Washington.
Washington also helps explain things at the clinic. “Things need to be broken down into layman’s terms. When you make a person feel like they’re not smart enough, it doesn’t help them or the community because they drop out of care and the disease continues to spread.”
Her stint as a volunteer led to Washington’s full-time job as one of the first HIV peer advocates in the state of Georgia. Today, as a senior peer advocate for the Coastal Health District, Washington provides guidance and emotional support to HIV positive clients and tries to ensure that they adhere to taking their medication.
“The first thing I tell a new client is that we can cry, we can scream, and we can resent this disease. But after that cycle has played out, we can fight,” she said.
Washington said she believes that she has become a stronger counselor because of her own issues and the knowledge that if she can overcome the struggles associated with being HIV positive, so can others.
“If I reach just one person who is super-scared and super-fearful and doesn’t know how to disclose their status and then watch them grow and blossom and become productive, then I know I’ve done my job,” she said.
Washington knows first-hand how difficult it can be to overcome stigmas associated with having HIV. “But when it comes to HIV, there are no stereotypes,” she said.
“I didn’t come from a broken home or family. There was no abuse and no drugs. I went to private school and my parents have been married for 52 years,” said Washington.
Three years ago, Washington co-founded the group SPIRIT (Successful Positive Individuals Reaching Inspirable Transformations). SPIRIT is for people who are infected with, and affected by, HIV. Monthly meetings are held to help clients manage their care using different tools available to them. In March, 2011, Washington was recognized by the African-American women advisory group, the Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS)-Georgia for her work with SPIRIT. Washington’s next goal is to start a new group aimed at HIV positive teens that are transitioning into adulthood.
Every year when World AIDS Day rolls around, Washington says it gives her a chance to reflect on her own personal motto: “I have HIV. HIV does not have me.” It is that spirit that she tries to instill in others every day.
“Life isn’t about what we could have been,” she said. “Life is about what we are and will become.”