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Grandmother with AIDS Educates Students, Adults about HIV/AIDS

By having the courage to go public with her diagnosis, Theresa Parrish hashad the opportunityto educate others about HIV/AIDS and how the disease is transmitted. KSMU's Missy Shelton has Theresa's story.

Meet Theresa Parrish. She’s 56 years old and has 5 grown children. She has 11 grandkids. She is happily married. She also has AIDS.

“I had a blood transfusion in 1983 when my youngest child was born. And they believe that’s probably where it came from because not only did I have HIV, I had Hep C.”

Theresa hasn’t always had the courage to speak publicly about her health and to educate others about HIV. At the time of her diagnosis in 1989, she was devastated.

“At that time, it was a death sentence. The doctor said, ‘Well according to this and what your symptoms are, you probably have 6 months to a year to live.’ A lot of depression, a lot of anger, a lot of ‘why me?’ A lot of crying. What you see before you is the product of all that.”

It’s been a long journey for Theresa. Just after her diagnosis, she remembers contemplating ways to kill herself, thinking her children would be better off without her. That prompted her to seek counseling. She also joined a support group for people with AIDS, something that took a lot of courage. She vividly recalls how tentative she felt going to her first meeting, not even willing to wait directly outside the door where the group met.

“It was room 272. I’ll never forget it. I sat off to the side because I didn’t want to sit in front of it because people might think I had AIDS or HIV. Then I saw somebody go in and I thought, ‘Ok, I can sneak in.’ That was my initial experience going to a group because going to a group made me accept that I had HIV. It was a reality check.”

A reality check but also a lifeline, as it turned out. Theresa met a group of men who mentored her and as she puts it, showed her how to make room in her life for HIV. In the early 1990’s, Theresa says she did not fit the stereotype of people with HIV. So, it wasn’t long before she was asked to write a newspaper piece about women with HIV.

“I really struggled with that because it was like, ‘If I do that, so many people are going to know.’ Then I would struggle with, ‘Well, they’re gossiping about me anyway. Why not get rid of all that gossip and get it out there.’”

It wasn’t just other people who would know she was HIV positive…writing about her life for a newspaper meant telling her five kids, who, at that time, ranged in age from 7 to 15. Besides the newspaper article, there was another reason she wanted to tell her children.

“If I was to die, I don’t want people at my funeral talking about me and my kids overhearing someone say, ‘Well, you know, she had that disgusting disease AIDS. She must have been such a bad person that she could get that.’ So, that was why I told my kids when I did. Actually telling them was like a weight was lifted off my heart because now, I know nobody can tell them that I have HIV because I’ve told them already. They’re not going to hear it from someone else.”The first time Theresa spoke to an outside group about being HIV positive was at the request of a doctor. He asked her to share her story with a few medical students…Turned out there were about 300 med students who came to hear from a panel of people living with HIV.

“We each bared our souls. We talked about what it was like to live with HIV, how trying it was to have a family and juggle all this stuff, the finances, our feelings about taking medications, our reactions to medications, knowing if we didn’t take it our chances of dying were greater. But if we took our medicine, we’re going to live longer but we’ll be kind of miserable. It was so rewarding because when we got the responses back, they were ‘We hadn’t ever thought about going into the field of infectious disease but after seeing a face with the disease, I can now treat that person as a human, as opposed to a disease.”

Theresa had such a positive experience sharing her story, she took on other speaking engagements, eventually agreeing to talk to middle and high school students about HIV and AIDS.

“I am here to see that not one more child becomes infected with HIV because they didn’t know how to protect themselves or because they didn’t know how it’s transmitted. We talk about the fluids that transmit HIV, the routes of transmission, what risky behaviors will contribute to being infected with HIV. I want them to be afraid of being infected with HIV.”

All that happened while Theresa was living in the Washington, D.C. area. She says moving to the Ozarks presented challenges because there wasn’t as much support for people with AIDS. Eventually, Theresa did begin speaking to students here about HIV. Now, Theresa is also passionate about educating older women. She says sometimes, women who are past their childbearing years think they don’t have anything to worry about when they have sex because they can’t get pregnant. But Theresa says older women need to know they still can contract HIV. Theresa appeared in a public service announcement a few years ago through AIDS Project of the Ozarks to drive home her point.

“I’m a grandmother and I’m HIV positive.”

Even though Theresa has the courage to be public about having AIDS, not caring what other people think or what stigma the disease carries in the minds of some people, she still remembers the pain she felt right after her diagnosis. She offers this advice to others dealing with that pain.

“Dig down deep inside you and find out what you’re really about because that’s what HIV makes you do. Don’t cower because someone else makes you feel bad. Don’t do that. Step forward. You have a life, live it, to the best.”

Theresa says that is what she has tried to do.

For KSMU, I'm Missy Shelton.