When Brenda received a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, the doctor gave her a grave prognosis.
“They told me I had five years to live.”
That was about 30 years ago.
This Friday, December 1, communities all over the world will unite to commemorate World AIDS Day. In St. Louis, this year’s event will be held this Friday from 3-7 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. Places for People is proud to be one of the supporting sponsors of the event, which is a day of remembrance, celebration and hope.
As part of the region’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, Places for People’s PATH Team provides ongoing case management services to approximately 120 adults living with HIV/AIDS, mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Places for People is the only provider of intensive mental health services under this grant in the St. Louis region. Places for People also provides psychiatry services to approximately 180 people through the grant.
In her 15 years working as Ryan White Case Manager for Places for People’s HIV/AIDS treatment team, Beverly Murphy has developed a keen sense of assessing a person’s foundation for recovery.
“Some people you can kind of see they have the foundation there and they get on track,” she said.
When Beverly first met Brenda about 10 years ago, Brenda was homeless, using drugs, and not always consistently adhering to her HIV/AIDS medication.
“When Brenda came in, she had a lot going on,” Beverly recalls.
Still, Beverly saw that Brenda had the potential for healing. “Brenda had a lot of tools already in her arsenal. I think that she just needed that extra support,” Beverly said.
Healing did not happen overnight.
“I got to a point where I started using drugs, drinking, just spiraling downhill and Beverly was the one that pretty much kept it all together for me,” Brenda said. “People don’t understand the madness of addiction until they go through it. And the worst part was I didn’t want to use and yet I was using constantly.”
Tumultuous does not even begin to describe Brenda’s first 40 years.
Brenda’s first memory is of her stepfather getting shot on New Year’s Eve in 1969. The next day, Brenda and her three brothers entered the foster care system. She rarely stayed with a family more than a year.
“Turmoil and hardship was all I ever knew,” Brenda said.
Assigned male at birth, Brenda began identifying as female in her youth. “My problem is I’ve never been socially acceptable. I spent my life in foster homes.”
Brenda spent her high school years with an adopted family in a small, rural town in Illinois. “It was fighting, it was abuse, it was everything that you never wanted it to be.”
After graduating from high school, she got married, became a parent, and joined the Army. When she learned that her son had been taken away from her wife by children’s protective services, Brenda’s Army career went into a tailspin and she was dismissed with a bad conduct discharge.
In the late 1980s, Brenda tested positive for HIV/AIDS. Soon after, her wife left with their son and daughter.
That’s when doctors told Brenda she had five years to live. At that point, she attempted to make that go even faster. “That’s when I first started using,” she said.
While taking illicit drugs, Brenda avoided medication to treat the HIV/AIDS. “I actually refused to take the medications for the first three years after I was diagnosed. It was because I wanted to die, not because I didn’t like the side effects.”
An encounter with a prostitute gave Brenda the impetus to make a change. “She asked me a simple question, ‘why was I here?’” Brenda could not answer the question. “She just basically told me to live. After that, I found an apartment, got assistance, got meds, found a part-time job.”
She moved to St. Louis for the first time in 1998, changed her name and started living full-time as a female. After a period of sobriety, Brenda moved to Southern Missouri.
She returned to St. Louis in approximately 2007 when a friend had an accident and almost died. “I was quite lost when I came back.”
That’s when Positive Directions and the City of St. Louis Health Department connected Brenda to Places for People’s PATH Team.
Immediately, Beverly connected Brenda with a psychiatrist, and provided case management.
“Beverly helped me stay on top of my medical and psychiatric needs. I had to fumble around a lot to figure where everything landed. I’m still fumbling around, I’m just doing a better job of it,” Brenda said.
Beverly emphasized the importance of adhering to medication, and also told Brenda about the role a stable living environment plays in health. “I would talk to her about the people she associated with. If you’re not in a healthy environment, then you yourself can’t focus on what you need in order to stay healthy,” Beverly said. “Brenda has a thing where she likes to help everybody else, but she’s not focusing on herself.”
Brenda said Beverly provided her with a wake-up call that at first made her angry, but eventually she heard and heeded.
“I don’t necessarily think it was anything I said, it was more like being there for her, being a support,” she said. “Being there to listen and helping her get connected with a psychiatrist she could trust.”
For the past three years, Brenda has maintained her sobriety. “Being clean allowed me to recognize more the things I didn’t want to see and coming to terms with it.”
She called her current life a complete 180 from where she was 5-10 years ago.
“Nowadays, I’m working part-time. I’m maintaining a house. I have car payments. I’m looking at finally getting SRS surgery, which was not even in my range of comprehension back then.”
Today, Brenda’s viral counts are undetectable and her T-cells are high. “It’s like everything else, I have to plan it ahead. Once I get everything in a routine, it’s easy for me.”
Brenda, now 50 years old, visited a surgeon in Chicago in August to discuss Sex Reassignment Surgery. She plans to have the procedure in 2018.
In a job that can be challenging at times, with a lack of resources available for people living with HIV/AIDS, Beverly said it is a relief and rewarding when someone can make and sustain a turn around.
“Clients have to have their own motivation for wanting to get to the goal. We do set goals and we have a treatment plan. They have to have some vision and path to get to that vision to see it. We have a lot of clients who can’t see the path where they are today, but Brenda had that vision and she had some idea of the path she wanted to take to get there. We’re just agents to help her along the way.
“And those who don’t have it. Hopefully we can be people there to help them see that there is something else beyond today. There’s some hope.”
Brenda is grateful for the connection and motivation Beverly has provided through the years.
“For some reason, she likes me, because she’s stayed with me. The stuff I put her through in order to get clean and everything else, I don’t know how she tolerated it,” Brenda said. “She stuck with me and really kept me on my toes as far as relearning to take care of myself.”
World AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year, and is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Places for People is proud to be one of the sponsors of St. Louis World AIDS Day. This year’s event will be held this Friday from 3-7 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum.
Activities include a screening of “Still Around,” a performance by the Gateway Men’s Chorus, a food drive for Food Outreach, the first St. Louis Red Ribbon Awards, a memorial vigil, ACA enrollment, rapid HIV testing, and more.