Iowans share stories of struggle, acceptance of living with HIV on World AIDS Day

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowans shared their stories on Sunday of fear, struggle and ultimately, acceptance, as they fight HIV.

Tim Campbell talks about his experience living with HIV at a World AIDS Day event in Iowa City on Dec. 1, 2019. (MARY GREEN/KCRG)

The University of Iowa student group IC Red and the organization Positive Iowans Taking Charge, also known as PITCH, held an event at the Iowa Memorial Union to mark the 31st commemoration of World AIDS Day.

It was a day among many days that Tami Haught of Nashua never thought she’d see.

“When my son was born, I was told and was expected that I wouldn’t live long enough to see him graduate high school,” she said.

Just a few years before that, and more than 20 years ago, Haught found out she was HIV-positive.

“I was shocked, because I wanted to believe that HIV didn’t happen to someone like me,” she said. “It’s something that we think happens to somebody else.”

A few weeks before Haught received her diagnosis, her then-fiancé was diagnosed with AIDS. He died almost three years later, only two months before their son was born.

Haught initially felt hopeless when facing her own future.

“I was living to die at that time,” she said.

However, she said her outlook eventually changed as HIV treatments advanced.

Haught currently serves as the vice president for PITCH and works to modernize HIV-specific laws around the nation.

“As far as the medicine and the knowledge, we have come so far,” she said. “Now as far as stigma, I don’t know that we’ve moved a whole lot.”

She and two other Iowans spoke at Sunday’s event, sharing their stories of living with HIV in order to try to erase that stigma.

Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson also addressed the audience about her own experience founding Project Angel Food, an organization that delivers meals to seriously ill people, many of whom were AIDS patients.

Four other candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Sestak, who dropped out of the race earlier in the day — also sent in videos discussing how HIV/AIDS has impacted their own lives.

Dr. Jack Stapleton was among those in the crowd. Stapleton founded the University of Iowa HIV/AIDS Clinic in 1988 and said that while the stigma surrounding HIV has lessened since then, it’s still a big issue.

“We still have people who know they have HIV and don’t come in for care for 20 years, and then they show up in the emergency room with a very severe illness and sometimes die,” he said.

Since 1988, the clinic has helped around 2,500 patients with HIV. Doctors at the clinic currently follow about 800 Iowa patients, many of whom have an undetectable viral load, according to Stapleton.

It shows how far medicine and research have come in the last 31 years.

“When I started the clinic, about a quarter of our clinic died every year, so almost every week, we’d have a patient dying of HIV,” Stapleton said.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, about 2,800 Iowans are currently living with HIV. Health statistics show about four males are diagnosed for every female in the state, and Black and Latino Iowans are disproportionately affected by HIV.

While medical advancements have transformed the ways to prevent and treat HIV, the people who showed up Sunday were there because they say it’s still something that needs to be discussed.

“Since we’re not talking about it, and with so many schools not teaching kids and having comprehensive sex education, we are putting another generation at risk of contracting HIV,” Haught said.

As she manned a table at Sunday’s event, Haught sat next to a board with photos of her with family. Among the pictures are images of her son’s wedding and her grandchildren’s birthdays.

“What I’ve been calling my ‘reclaiming milestones that I never thought I would have’ board,” she said.

Haught brings the board with her when she meets presidential candidates during their stops in Iowa this election cycle.

Several candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, have signed around the edge of it and left messages of hope and support.

For Haught, it provides an opportunity to discuss a topic that she believes is too important to forget about.

It’s also a chance to show them and remind herself of how far she’s come.

“Today, I’m living to live,” she said.