Stories of life and loss ahead of World AIDS Day

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On December 5, it will be fifteen years since Deirdre Johnson got the news that shook her world.

“I found out at the same time I was positive, I was also pregnant,” she remembers.

Then 25-years-old, Johnson had a baby with a man who did not disclose he had HIV.  With her diagnosis, Johnson hit the ground running.

“I always like to say that my test is always going to be my testimony,” she explains why she shares her story.  “I don’t want anybody else to end up like me.”

Johnson is involved with the Richmond World AIDS Day Coalition to honor lost lives and educate others with her diagnosis.

According to the Richmond City Health District, about 2,400 people are living with HIV and AIDS in Richmond.  An estimated 59 new cases will be diagnosed this year.  In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control listed Richmond as having one of the top HIV rates in the country.

Jim Burns, who watched his brother succumb to AIDS in 1994, has been an advocate for decades.  He is the founder of the Richmond World AIDS Day Coalition.

“We need to continue to fight this battle, we need to find a way to get rid of this pandemic,” says Burns.

He lived in New York in 1981 and recalls the first cases and the fear that swept through the City.  In the early 1990’s when the number reached 167, Burns stopped counting how many people he knew who died from it.

The AIDS Memorial quilt panel for Jim Burns' brother is currently on display at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church, 4247 Creighton Road in Richmond.
The AIDS Memorial quilt panel for Jim Burns’ brother is currently on display at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church, 4247 Creighton Road in Richmond.

Burns says in 2015 there are so many advances, but there are also misconceptions about HIV/AIDS.  While drug therapies extend lives, they are not cures.

He says young people have to understand that HIV hurts those who have it.  “It starts eating away at your immune system, so they will come up with other things.”

“Like everything you go through in life, there’s always gonna be ups and downs,” says Johnson.  “I always tell people that HIV is not just a physical disease, it is also a mental disease.”

She takes seven pills a day now.  Only one of them is for HIV, down from the six a day she used to take.  She needs the other drugs to control what she calls effects of “the stigma.”

Johnson still hears taunts and threats but refuses to be silent for the sake of her children and others.

“This can happen to anybody,” Johnson drives home the message she continues to share.  “You need to make sure to protect yourself at all costs, at all costs.”

The Richmond World AIDS Day service will be held Tuesday, December 1 at the Church of the Holy Comforter at 4819 Monument Avenue in Richmond.  It begins at 7pm.  Everyone is invited to attend.

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