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If you're living with AIDS, you are not alone
An area agency is helping those who have it and educating those who don't
Angel Randolph, executive director of North Georgia Aids Alliance, shows the simple HIV test available at the North Georgia Aids Alliance on Oak Street.

It was in the dark of winter in 1991 when a bright-eyed social worker gave Robin Hale the news that he had tested positive for HIV.

The social worker told him to be wary of suicidal tendencies, to stay away from cat and bird feces and informed him that he could no longer eat raw seafood.

"The first thought I had as I was walking out was ‘I guess sushi’s out.’"

Seventeen years later, Hale, 56, laughs as he recalls the experience, but on that day in the early months of 1991, Hale assumed he would be dead by now.

Seventeen years later, Hale is evidence that HIV can be managed if it is detected early.

That’s why Angel Randolph, executive director of the North Georgia AIDS Alliance, is here.

Randolph operates on the philosophy that HIV testing should be a regular part of everyone’s health care routine.

From a small suite on Oak Street in Gainesville, the North Georgia AIDS Alliance has taken on the large task of existing as the only organization whose sole purpose is to address issues related to HIV and AIDS in the 13 counties of Public Health District 2.

As one of three HIV testing centers in the county, the alliance offers free, quick and confidential testing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In 10 years, the alliance has tested more than 2,000 people. Of that group, less than 10 have tested positive for HIV, Randolph said.

"It’s good that it’s that low," Randolph said.

Yet Randolph said she believes the small number of positive tests that she has encountered may not be an accurate representation of how many people might be living with HIV in Hall County.

During the course of 25 years, the disease has had a growing presence in the South, and Georgia is no exception.

Out of 50 states, Georgia ranks eighth for the number of HIV and AIDS cases reported since the beginning of the epidemic.

The most recent numbers released by the state’s Department of Human Resources show that by the end of 2006, 18,838 Georgians were living with AIDS, and 10,416 were infected with HIV.

However, those numbers merely represent the cases that have been reported, and the number of reported cases in Georgia only is one-third of reality, according to an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Randolph will be the first to tell you that the disease is present in Hall County.

In June 2007, at least 145 people were living with HIV and 203 had AIDS within the public health district that includes Hall County, according to the Department Of Human Resources.

As the disease has become more prevalent, Randolph seeks to prevent future infections and stamp out the stigma associated with the disease.

Although the public’s perception of it has not, the face of the disease has changed since the 1980s when it seemed to strike only gay men and intravenous drug users.

In 2006, women accounted for 33 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in Georgia. The year before, they were only one-quarter of the new diagnoses, according to the Department of Human Resources.

And the disease is certainly not limited by sexuality.

Only 34 percent of the men in Georgia who were diagnosed with HIV in 2006 reported homosexual contact, according to the Department of Human Resources.

More than half of them did not report a CDC-defined risk factor for HIV.

Today, the disease also has begun to affect all age groups almost equally, and Georgians between the ages of 13 and 29 are increasingly at risk.

"It’s apparent that the young people are still getting infected," Randolph said.

To generate awareness in the younger demographic, the AIDS Alliance sponsors programs targeted toward adolescents and college-aged adults that encourage safe sex and the importance of getting tested regularly.

Next year, Randolph hopes to start a teen leadership program in which the alliance trains teenagers on HIV prevention methods, and charges them with the responsibility of teaching their peers.

"Young people listen to each other, and if you can train them with the proper information, then hopefully, there will be a trickle-down effect," Randolph said.

Along with Randolph’s work in the community, Hale says area schools need to be more aggressive about HIV and AIDS education.

The teen pregnancy rate alone is proof that teaching abstinence in a society with a "sex sells" mentality has been ineffective, he said.

"It’s such a double standard in our culture that everything is infused with sex, and yet we tell people, ‘No, abstinence is the only way,’ or ‘Don’t talk about it.’ It’s hypocritical," he said.

Not all parents are comfortable with sex education programs, but not all parents feel comfortable talking to their kids about sex, Randolph said.

"I think there’s a portion of our community that thinks conversations about sex should be taken care of in the home," Randolph said. "But some kids’ parents can’t have that conversation. That’s where organizations like mine come in and give the information where it’s needed."

Today, a healthy-looking Hale says that it is more likely he will die in a car accident than of an HIV-related illness.

He did not always feel that way.

Prior to his diagnosis, Hale said he knew about the virus. At that time, though, an AIDS diagnosis was nothing short of a death sentence.

In the early days of the disease, AIDS quickly took the lives of seven or eight of Hale’s acquaintances — the ones he describes as the most gifted of his generation.

"There was a little bit of a sense of fatalism. It was going to get everybody in those days," Hale said. "... A lot of people thought ‘What’s the difference? It’s going to get us all one way or the other.’"

Now Hale knows that it is possible to live a gratifying life and be HIV positive.

"It’s not ... this horrible, black, bleak sort of death sentence," he said. "It’s this thing that happens to you, and you either deal with it positively or you don’t deal with it. ... If you take good care of yourself; if you decide that you’re going to live life and live life on its terms, then you deal with that stuff."

Dealing with the reality of his disease has been a process, Hale said. The first four years were the hardest emotionally.

"The first image that showed up for me was life was like an expanse of mud, and suddenly I was afraid of leaving my footprints in the mud," Hale said.

Yet, a man of self expression, Hale found ways to channel his feelings — "I wrote page after page after page of bad poetry." — and discovered that good things, like love, could happen even after HIV infection.

"You don’t think that anybody’s ever going to love you ever again, that the idea of a relationship is out the window," he said. "It’s not the case."

Eventually, Hale decided it was not only OK, but that it was beneficial to leave his footprints in the expanse of mud that is his life. He decided to become an advocate.

Seventeen years after his diagnosis, Hale chooses to speak publicly about his disease to show that AIDS affects more than demographics, it affects humans.

"If you get a personal face attached to the disease, then it’s easier for people to change (their perceptions)..." he said. "... And that’s one of our jobs as human beings is to help each other live and grow and understand what it is. It’s this amazing process about life that we get to participate in."

Part of understanding the humanity of AIDS is being aware of the hurdles a person infected with HIV faces.

To survive the disease as long as he has, Hale said he is lucky he qualifies for Medicaid and Social Security disability.

To be eligible for treatment in the county’s Ryan White Clinic, a federally funded health clinic that treats people living with HIV and AIDS including Hale, patients must have an income that is 300 percent below the federal poverty level, said Janie Dalton, area nurse manager for District 2 Public Health.

Those who do not meet the requirements must find a private doctor to treat them, which is not an easy task in Hall County, Dalton said.

"There are few doctors that will take (Ryan White) referrals," Dalton wrote in an e-mail. "There is a need for more physicians to provide HIV care in our district."

Even if one finds a private doctor, affording adequate treatment can be costly.

Without government assistance, Hale says he would be paying about $37,000 a year to take five pills twice a day.

"The great trap in our culture right now is that the people who can afford really decent health care are either the fairly wealthy or are very poor," he said. "Middle-class people who earn a certain amount and don’t have insurance or have very little insurance, they’re the ones that have to pay full price. It’s terrible, but, you know, it’s a reality."

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