12/01/05 — Putting a face on AIDS

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Putting a face on AIDS

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 1, 2005 1:48 PM

When Alton Vinson was diagnosed with HIV, he expected he would only live two more years. That was 12 years ago.

But then, five years ago, he found out what had been HIV had turned to AIDS.

"It was devastating" news, Vinson said. "At that time, I didn't fit the category that people would think that would catch AIDS. I felt very bad because even then, I was uneducated enough to think that was something that happened to bad people."

It was so unlikely that he probably wouldn't have even considered getting tested if he hadn't learned a friend had died from the virus.

"I put two and two together, realized that we had been through some of the same things," Vinson said. After reading more on the subject, he decided it would be wise to get tested.

He was living in Durham at the time, having grown up in Goldsboro. He graduated from Eastern Wayne High School in 1977 and attended Fayetteville State University, studying business administration. His time there was cut short after his father passed away.

"The next 10 years, life took a downward spiral," Vinson said. "It wasn't too eventful."

He became involved in a 12-step recovery program, which helped change his life. For a time he lived in Raleigh before moving to Durham to work as a nursing assistant and substance abuse counselor.

Vinson, 46, readily admits he contracted the disease that now controls his life from having unprotected sex -- and he wants to warn others with his example.

"I think it's important for me to say because that happens to a lot of people," he said. "The most important thing to realize is that you can catch it that way."

But he wasn't always so willing to share his experience.

"I was very careful that I didn't want anyone from my immediate area and family and friends to find out," he said. Living a distance away, he sought support from recovery friends as well as a church home.

For the first five years after being diagnosed, Vinson said he suffered no illnesses associated with the virus and required no medications. About three years ago, his health worsened.

"That's when I started with the loss of energy, weight loss and it was obvious that they needed to do something different," he said.

Doctors put him on a drug cocktail regimen that seems to be working well, he said. He currently takes 10 pills a day, five in the morning and five each evening. Eventually, Vinson expects he will require more.

"It's helping," he said. "But there's a lot of side effects such as irregularities in my system. Sometimes it causes nausea."

He has monthly doctor visits to monitor his progress. Currently on disability, he has had to adjust in ways he never anticipated.

"One of the hardest things for me prior to getting on disability was that when I worked as a nursing assistant in the Durham area, I could make good money," he said. "Now I have been forced to live a totally different lifestyle ... not being able to have what I would like to."

While he is grateful for help he receives for his medical bills, he said it also closes the door on a lot of other assistance he receives.

"At this time, my eligibility for food stamps is $10 a month," he said. "I'm thankful but at the same time, what good is that?"

He is also concerned about recent news that case management in Wayne County has been terminated. As of Dec. 15, he said, there will not be an agency in Wayne County that can access money for AIDS patients.

The Wayne County AIDS Task Force is reportedly attempting to select and appoint someone to do that, he said.

A man of faith, Vinson said his belief in God is what keeps him going. He is also grateful that since moving back to Goldsboro four years ago, he has received unexpected support from his family and friends.

"It wasn't like they needed me to use separate dishes or didn't want me around," he said. "I didn't face any of that."

Others have not been as fortunate, he said, and there is still discrimination, even if not always openly.

"Most of the discrimination that I might get is not from people that want to harm me but from people that don't know enough to combat it," he said. "For me, the biggest time that it gets to me is when it's totally from an area that's unexpected, from places I don't expect it."

Jeri Barnes, a lifelong friend, has been particularly helpful, he said.

"When I was diagnosed, I ran into her," he recalled. "I had come back to Goldsboro and was making this tremendous adjustment; she was there."

Together, they came up with the idea that Goldsboro needed a plan to respond to issues of AIDS and HIV.

"Being from this area, the main problem is that most people that have been diagnosed, have not come forward, are suffering in silence," Vinson said. "The state sometimes gets the idea that Wayne County is not in need of the funding that we could desperately use."

WayneAIDS was formed about six months ago as an advocacy group as well as a support group, but is not limited to those with the illness. It meets the third Monday of each month at 6:15 p.m. at the Health Department.

WayneAIDS' role is to work with other organizations to heighten awareness and improve education about AIDS and HIV. The group recently sponsored a free community forum at Wayne County Public Library and tonight will participate in a candlelight vigil for AIDS awareness. The march starts at city hall at 6 p.m. and travels down Mulberry Street to St. Mark Church, where a reception will be held.

"Education is something that you need to get whether or not you think you might have (the disease)," Vinson said. "Whether or not you have family members with it - everybody needs to get educated. I think that really it's a disservice for people to be uneducated. (Many) put their lack of knowledge into practice, such as shying away from the virus."

And knowing -- and acknowledging -- you have the disease is important, too.

"If for some reason a person should become infected, we'll want them to be able to feel safe with that," Vinson said.

Once diagnosed, it is no longer as important how the disease was contracted but what course of action is best.

"The main thing to realize is that it's a terrible disease, and we need to eradicate it," he said. "For people to look at people that are infected, the main thing is to look at them as a person with HIV or AIDS - not as a drug abuser, not as a homosexual, not as an ex-prostitute - but as a person that does have the virus, and do what we can do to improve the quality of life at that point."

Fear often fuels the ignorance, Vinson said.

"I would like to come out to show that after this devastating thing happens to a person, that we still can have a quality of life," he said.

Vinson said his hope is that anyone reading his story, especially those who might know someone with the virus, will realize that "we're people first and foremost, not someone to be shunned, not someone to be hid away. We're people that have a life."

While he feels better on some days than others, Vinson said the majority of the time, he can still live a fulfilling life.

"I enjoy going to movies and plays," he said. "I'm aware of the importance of my family and my friends. I don't take it for granted and I do make an effort to make the time that I'm here count."

For more information on WayneAIDS Inc., call 736-8190.