Living with HIV
- Phillip Wiles' story of strength and endurance

Stabroek News
September 4, 1999

Phillip Wiles is like many young men; clean cut, athletic with a winning smile. He could be anybody's son, brother, boyfriend. Phillip Wiles is HIV positive.

He had a "normal" childhood in a "normal" neighbourhood--West Ruimveldt, went to church, played games like any other child. He was above average in school and went on to St Stanislaus College. He took a job as a clerk at a major bottling company, but he started to drink and use drugs and could not keep his position. He joined the police force and after that began a job repairing refrigerators. He was, like many young men, unsure of his vocation.

1994 saw Phillip working steadily, going to church and with a steady girlfriend. Late in the year he woke up one morning feeling sick; with vomiting and diarrhoea. He went to the doctor who diagnosed malaria. He felt better but soon after the symptoms returned and it was found this time he had typhoid. His condition persisted. He had heard a rumour that the father of his girlfriend's child had the "AIDS thing". He decided to take the test.

Describing his reaction to the positive test Phillip says: "Time froze and it was so shocking that I could not register any feelings." In fact, he said, he began to laugh. Right away he began having suicidal feelings. He called his job and said he would not be returning. He went to have a drink to drown his sorrows.

When he told his mother, for whom he is the only child, she "took it hard" and cried along with his stepfather. She was scared at first. He called his girlfriend and informed her of his condition. She was to die two years later.

There then began a two-year period of depression and denial. He started to use drugs again and would not go home for weeks. He got the impression that his family was pulling away from him when in fact it was his own self-imposed isolation.

Meanwhile, his mother had started counselling and eventually persuaded Phillip to enter a drug rehabilitation programme organised by the Salvation Army. He also received help from Lifeline Counselling Services to deal with his HIV status. He jokes that he has two diseases because he considers drug dependence to be one.

He remembers the first time he experienced discrimination. "I went to a friend's house to eat dinner and after the meal I saw them put my fork and plate in a rubbish bag for them to throw away." He laughs and says that now the same family asks him to cook for them!

He decided to do volunteer AIDS education with Lifeline, talking at schools and churches about HIV. But this was not without risks. Once as he was entering a mini-bus, a passenger who had been in the audience at one of his addresses identified him as the "AIDS man" and asked the conductor to remove Phillip from the bus. The conductor called him gay, verbally abused him and threatened him with a crowbar.

He has also visited friends who were evicted from their houses by their families and were living in dog houses.

There are many myths associated with HIV/AIDS, the first being that it is a gay disease, but since 1987 reported cases have included 371 females out of a total of 1,045 and the percentage of females infected is rising which shows that the epidemic is now part of the heterosexual population.

The second is that HIV can be passed on through casual association such as shaking hands or even being in the same room. The Human Immuno Deficiency Virus (HIV) is very fragile. It cannot survive outside the human body. This means that it can only be transferred by what the doctors call "exchange of bodily fluids."

"I went to a friend's house to eat dinner and after the meal I saw them put my fork and plate in a rubbish bag for them to throw away."

HIV is not AIDS. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS and creates a condition that degrades the body's immune system making it susceptible to infections. This disarming of the immune system varies widely from person to person. People are living perfectly healthy lives for many years after infection. It is important to eat well, exercise and to avoid stress.

It is only after the immune system has been so denigrated that it can no longer fight disease that a person develops Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). They do not in fact die of AIDS, but rather of one or more opportunistic diseases that they can no longer fight off.

Wiles' work with HIV/AIDS education has had unexpected but happy consequences. Recently he was talking to some school children and when he disclosed his condition they held onto him genuinely concerned. When he thinks about his status there is some sadness.

"I find myself in a battle to do things quickly," he said, not knowing what the future might bring. He feels a sense of loss; as a young man he always believed that his role should be to benefit man. But he realises, "I can do more now than I would have been able to do." He mentions that he is available to any organization to help promote awareness and educate people about the disease. He believes that the government's programme is well organized "on paper" and approves of its decision to involve NGOs but that there should be more emphasis on helping persons who are HIV positive to live with the condition including the supply of drugs.

His message to those fortunate not to be infected is simple and universal. Protect yourself. To those who are already infected he urges them not to hide their condition. It creates a negative environment. He has found that people's reactions have on the whole been ones of kindness and caring.

There is life after being tested HIV positive, Phillip says, and talking with him it seems as if he is stronger and wiser beyond his years because of his condition. As he says "I am HIV positive and I am positive about that."

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples