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When HIV comes home

Lorraine Mitchell has a message for women in "committed" relationships who believe they are not at risk for AIDS: Get tested.

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It wasn't until her seventh bout of chicken pox that Lorraine Mitchell discovered what was really wrong. In a six-by-eight-foot room, a doctor eyed her curiously and broke the news: She was HIV-positive.Mitchell still remembers what the hallway outside looked like, 12 years, four months and 22 days later. She remembers the smells, the doctor's expression. "I guess he didn't expect to see anybody that looked like me," said Mitchell, who was 38 when she got the diagnosis.

Mitchell tried calling her husband from the office. He denied he had AIDS and demanded to know what she had done. Nothing, she said. She was happy in their marriage. She knew it must have been he who infected her.

Some of Mitchell's four daughters, however, weren't waiting for a confession from their stepfather. Her oldest threatened the man with a butcher knife. Another withdrew into a pot-tinged haze. After more than five years of marriage, her husband's secrets were coming home.

"I had known what I was doing." Mitchell said, then paused. "But I didn't know what he was doing."

In 2002, AIDS was the top killer among black women in the US between 25 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And though Mecklenburg County data indicates the percentage of newly infected women is stable, AIDS advocates say more women are becoming clients.

"They think they're in monogamous relationships and they're not," said Eloise Hicks, executive director of Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium. "And if you don't believe you're at risk, then you're not as careful."

The number of newly infected people in Mecklenburg County has climbed each year since 2000 except for last year. In 2000, 218 people reportedly tested positive, compared to 344 people in 2004. Donna Smith, an epidemiologist specialist at the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said 2003 data likely included infections from previous years, which means the drop probably isn't as big as it looks — and may not be a drop at all.

Men who have sex with men represented the biggest surge since 2000 (50 percent of men who reported infection in 2004 contracted it from sex with other men, compared to 37 percent four years before). Still, infection among women — especially black women — worries health-care providers who say many HIV-positive women never believed sex with their seemingly faithful partners would kill them.

Mitchell never suspected anything in 1993 when clinicians at the emergency room suggested she take an HIV test. By that point, her bouts with chicken pox she thought she picked up working at Discovery Place had become a source of jokes among coworkers.

"I thought, naturally it's going to come out negative," Mitchell said. "I wasn't worried about that."

When she came back for results, she couldn't believe what she was hearing, she said. The words sounded muffled. Still, she didn't consider divorce, not even after her husband "went haywire" and refused to earn a living. She just took extra jobs — leaving work at Discovery Place at the end of the day to go turn down hotel beds. Then she'd work on a clean-up crew for special events. Sometimes she'd work from 8am until 2am.

That doesn't mean she'd forgiven her husband, even after he admitted he was infected. He knew to stay away when she was home. But one day when she came home and found him taking out the trash, her anger erupted, she recalled. She hit him with the '76 Buick she had restored. He rolled off the hood, stood up and ran off. He didn't call the cops, she said, because he knew she could disclose the drug use she found out about after her positive test.

"I wasn't the sweet, caring wife," she acknowledged.

As his illness worsened, he relied upon her to apply morphine patches for back pain. Sure, she'd say, just wait till Oprah goes to commercial. She was seething. "You son-of-a-bitch, you're getting it now," she thought.

Mitchell was nonchalant in 1997 when her husband asked her to take him to the emergency room. Doctors found lung, bone and liver cancer in the ensuing weeks. Three months later, she arrived home with filet mignon and chocolate-covered strawberries left over from a Carol Burnett event she'd worked. Her husband was dying.

In too much pain for her to hug him, he could endure only a light touch of her hands.

"OK," he said, finally. "I'm sorry."

And that was it. He was dead.

"He just turned cold," she said. "It was like you flipped a switch."

He never acknowledged that he had infected her with HIV, she said. But after his death that May, she discovered from medical records that he'd known he had AIDS when they married, and probably had infected previous women he'd slept with.

"That just floored me," Mitchell said.

After her diagnosis, she had asked her gynecologist why he never offered her a test. She said he told her, "You didn't fall into any of the categories."

Such a response isn't uncommon, said Vanessa Anderson, program director and executive director of Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium. Anderson said two doctors have told her the same thing.

"I think maybe part of it is that the media has gotten away from coverage of HIV, so if it's not in the forefront of people's minds, they don't typically ask," said Anderson.

Andre Anderson, a testing and counseling health educator for Metrolina AIDS Project, said talking about sex and HIV infection is more taboo in Charlotte than in south Florida, where he worked in AIDS prevention before moving here seven months ago. Gender roles, he said, play a part also, and not just in the South. "In this country, we're socialized to behave and believe in a certain way and those ways might be affecting HIV (infection) for women," he said.

Since last year, observers have speculated the so-called down-low phenomenon (supposedly straight men who secretly sleep with men) might be to blame. But Eloise Hicks said she doubts it.

"It makes for good press, but I'm not sure it's valid," Hicks said. "There are people out there having sex with other people, outside of the bonds of marriage or a committed relationship or whatever, and they're bringing these gifts home. That's always happened. It's just now these gifts can kill you."

Mitchell isn't certain how her late husband contracted the virus. She knows about the other women, she knows about the drugs. And now she tells anyone who will listen that women need to become more insistent that their men wear condoms. "Everybody's got a past."

Karen.shugart@creativeloafing.com

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