Editor’s Note: The speaker’s name in this article has been changed to protect his identity.
Twenty-five years ago, John Smith went to a frat party not knowing it would change his life.
Three guys attacked and raped him while he was drunk. That night was the last night Smith ever drank alcohol. It was also the night he became HIV positive.
For the past six years he has been traveling to inform people about HIV and AIDS using his own experiences. His goal is to educate people the proper way and to combat the wrong information that people receive from the media. On Tuesday, Sept. 18, the Temple Health Empowerment Office and the Honors Program welcomed Smith to tell his story.
“What I say today is very close to my heart,” Smith said, standing before 35 people in the 1300 residence hall classroom. “I have AIDS.”
Smith has lived with HIV for 25 years. When he tested positive, his doctor told him he had about two years to live. He did not receive treatment when he was first diagnosed; instead he decided to do all the things he always wanted.
He ended up with $30,000 worth of credit card debt but was still alive. In 1995, he reached his low in health. A healthy person usually has a T-cell count of 1000; in 1995 Smith’s T-cell count was 33. That year the “cocktail,” a combination of various drugs, appeared as a solution to fighting HIV and AIDS. Smith was put on this treatment and his health began to improve.
Now his T-cell count is 833. He considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. He never had an opportunistic infection, and even when his T-cell count was low, his immune system still continued to function.
“We are not here to judge other people of the choices they make,” Smith said he passed out bags of candy.
The candy game was an exercise Smith used to illustrate his point about people and choices. He passed out two bags of candy and instructed students to pick at least one piece, but we could have as much as we wanted. Different candies meant different things, but we did not find out the meanings until after we made our choices.
Sugarless gum stood for sex with condoms, while a Twix bar stood for prostitution. Fast Breaks represented intravenous drugs, while Snickers symbolized watching people have sex and laughing. The point of the exercise was to illustrate that people should never judge others and their choices. The game also showed Smith’s sense of humor and boldness.
“I’ll make you laugh and compare it to things you’ll remember,” Smith said as he explained how the HIV virus works and how it is transmitted.
Smith stressed the point that HIV is a preventable illness. He discussed the four bodily fluids that transmit the disease: blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. He also explained in layman’s terms how the virus infects the body and eventually takes over. He said he’s satisfied if everyone walks out of the lecture knowing at least the four bodily fluids of transmission.
“If I could do it over I would have skipped the frat party,” Smith said. “I would never choose to have AIDS, but if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t be doing what I do and I think what I do is important.”
Smith has given many lectures and has volunteered at different HIV testing sites as well as different HIV and AIDS conferences. He is more blunt and open than most traditional speakers, but he manages to get his point across especially with college students. After the lecture, many students went up to him and personally thanked him for coming and speaking.
THEO and the Honors Program held this event in order to bring about awareness to safe sex practices and HIV prevention.
“Students are bombarded with health information,” said THEO coordinator Dina Stonberg. “I think his programs really make a difference.”
Temple is now on the forefront of HIV and AIDS awareness. Temple is one of the first colleges in the country to now have rapid HIV testing, which means that after getting tested, students can get results in 20-40 minutes for free. THEO also holds a class in January called AIDS in Society, which is also rare for most colleges.
“The whole idea was putting a real face to the disease that isn’t typically seen in the media,” said Amanda Neuber, an Honors academic advisor. “What I wanted people to realize is that there are people living with HIV on campus that you would have never have thought had anything wrong with them.”
Rebecca Hale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.