By most accounts, Katie Rodriguez is an average 20-year-old. The college sophomore enjoys reading and painting, works in her school’s career development office and spends time with her boyfriend of two and a half years. But this cheery Florida native has been marked since birth for pain and struggle. Rodriguez was born HIV-positive, a disease affecting more than 1 million people living in the U.S. today. It takes a great measure of faith and loving support to live with such a condition. Fortunately, Rodriguez has both, and has managed to use her experiences positively by sharing her stories and insights with her community.
What has it been like growing up with HIV?
Growing up with HIV has definitely been a challenge. When I was younger, I was always taught never to reveal my condition. As a result, it was extremely difficult to understand who I was and feel accepted by others. In many ways, I felt like I was living a lie because I constantly had to lie to people about why I took pills and visited the doctor so often. However, as I got older I began to accept my disease and expose my story in hopes that my experiences may be prevented for others. I lost my mother to AIDS and my father to drug abuse, and I would hate for anyone to have to go through what I have been through because of ignorance.
Are there any ways in which living with HIV has had little effect on you?
HIV has had a huge effect on me. There is no way I can say that it has had “little effect” in my life. I have seen death as a result of this disease and wake up every morning thanking God that I am alive. Every day, when I take my pills, I am reminded of the disease that is trying to take my life, and how truly precious every moment I have is. I am extremely blessed to have good health now and the ability to wake up every morning!
What are some of the harmful attitudes you’ve observed about this disease?
Unfortunately, there is still quite a bit of negative stigma tied with HIV. The general “outlook” people have toward people living with HIV is that they are junkies, prostitutes or homosexuals. However, when they see me, it kind of takes most people aback because I am none of those things. I have had extremely bad experiences with people after disclosing. People have called me names, said rude comments and completely stopped talking to me altogether. It has been hurtful, but overall, people are pretty accepting.
What would you like the future to look like for those affected by HIV and AIDS?
I would love to see the disease stop spreading. However, that is probably a long stretch, so I would like to see more people standing and giving a new face to HIV. It is terrible to think some still believe HIV only happens in Africa, and to druggies, prostitutes and homosexuals. It is in our backyard and running rampant, and it is sad to see that occurring purely out of ignorance. I believe it is important to make the public aware of the reality of this disease. I would definitely like to see more support and money going into HIV/AIDS organizations, and making benefits readily available to those newly diagnosed or living with the disease. HIV is a huge and expensive headache that no one should have to go through, and it just makes it even more difficult if you don’t have the funds to pay for meds or doctor visits.
How do you reach out to others about this issue?
I try to do as many public speaking events as I can. I’ve gone to my old high school to speak to the health classes about HIV. I’ve done other events around central Florida, and made a video for Orange County Public Schools on HIV awareness. I am always open to everyone, and truly enjoy sharing my personal story, as well as facts about the disease and how to prevent it.
What do you share when speaking to others about living with HIV? What do you hope to accomplish in doing this?
When speaking with students, I genuinely try to tell them how this disease has affected my life and what it can do to theirs if they are not careful. I hope that through my experiences people can learn how to properly protect themselves against HIV, and really think twice before they do things. Overall, I love to encourage people and let them know that obstacles will always be a part of life but overcoming them is what truly matters. My story is just one in a million, nothing special. People have stories that are way worse than mine. I am definitely not here to boast; I truly just love to educate and encourage others.