What it’s like to have AIDS 5,000 cope with HIV in Hudson County

“I used to date this famous recording artist,” said Solomon Williams, 44, as he sipped on coffee at the waiting area of Jersey City’s Hyacinth Foundation last week. “One night while we laid in bed together after having intercourse, she told me ‘If I ever got AIDS, I would kill myself,’ and I said, ‘Me too.’ ”

What Williams, who worked at Arista Records and USA Network, didn’t know at the time was that this talk would be a powerful premonition.

After a series of illnesses, doctors diagnosed him with the HIV virus in April 2001, which he obtained through having unprotected sex.

“One day I collapsed, went into a coma and was put into the hospital,” said the Jersey City resident and father of five. “I lay there in a coma for 45 days, and when I came out of it, I was told I had AIDS. It was the lowest point in my life, but I knew I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live.”

Although October is AIDS Awareness Month, numerous groups and organizations throughout Hudson County are committed all year long to helping the estimated 5,000 known virus-infected individuals in the county.

One such organization, the Hyacinth Foundation, is a statewide nonprofit organization run by staff and volunteers that helps people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

‘You can talk about what you’re going through’

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a disorder of the immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It makes people more prone to infections and cancer. Current treatments can slow the disorder’s progression, but there is no known cure. It is spread only by unprotected sex, sharing needles, or blood transfusions.

The Hyacinth Foundation wants people to know that even though media attention to the disease has waned since the 1980s, the virus still continues to grow at an alarming rate, with a minimum of one person obtaining the virus every 15 minutes in the United States.

“There’s a complacency and apathy now regarding people living with HIV and AIDS,” said Patrick Bocco, Client Services Manager for Hyacinth’s Jersey City office. “It has really fallen off of the priority map. I think a lot of that has to do with medications and treatments now, which have decreased mortality and extended the lives of people. But it doesn’t work for everyone because there are many strains of the virus that are resistant.”

He added, “People think medication equals cure. It does not. Once you have the virus, you’ll always have the virus.”

Williams knows all too well about medication regimens. After being cut down from 14 pills a day to only two, Reyataz and Combivir (which cost thousands of dollars per year), the virus is now undetectable within his bloodstream.

“The doctor told me ‘Solomon, I got some good news for you,” he said last week. ” ‘You have the same symptoms Magic Johnson has. It’s undetectable.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘We can’t find it in your blood stream.’ And I said, ‘Hallelujah!'”

Yet many are not so fortunate.

“I walked into the office today and found out that one of my clients passed away,” said Bocco. “A 42-year-old woman passed away this morning. So we see mortality every day when we hear of clients. Not to the large numbers there were 10, 15, 20 years ago. But mortality still exists.”

Daughter will find a cure

Besides offering support, the foundation advocates prevention awareness by providing information on the virus, HIV testing, needle exchanges, risk reduction workshops and peer counseling.

“People think that the needle exchange program will endorse and increase drug use, which is totally wrong,” said Bocco. “If a person comes in with a dirty needle, they’ll get a clean needle instead of sharing that dirty needle with five people and spreading whatever infectious disease they might have in their blood stream.”

Along with these programs, Jersey City’s Hyacinth Foundation provides education and informative presentations for the workplace and within schools to diminish fears people may have about being alongside someone infected with the virus.

“Twenty five years later, we still hear things we heard 25 years ago,” said Bocco. ” ‘Oh, can you catch it from sharing a soda can from somebody? If you sit next to them? Can you catch it through the air? Can you catch it through a mosquito bite?’ ”

Hyacinth’s Jersey City office was established in 1986.

“I have a lot of respect for Hyacinth,” Williams said. “They have given me loyalty, clothes, food and they give me all the coffee I can drink, which is great because I love coffee. And they have meetings where you can talk about what you’re going through as a person living with the virus on a daily basis. It’s a good, loving organization.”

Williams said he will not let the fact that he has HIV stop him from living each and every day to the fullest extent.

“I have an 18-year-old daughter who just graduated from high school and who’s going to St. Peter’s College,” he said. “She told me a year ago that she’s going to major in forensics. I said, ‘Why you going into forensics? You want to put people in jail?’ She said, ‘No, I’m going to find a cure for you.’ And that gives me hope.”


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