CHICAGO — When Chatrivia Kennedy was summoned to her doctor’s office for the results of a blood test at eight months pregnant with her second child, she prepared herself for the news.
Less than two weeks earlier, the then 24-year-old’s partner was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia, a condition that strikes those with a compromised immune system. Kennedy’s partner’s doctor contacted her at his request, she said, and told her she should get tested for HIV. She immediately did.
“When I walked into the room and saw my midwife, doctor and a counselor, I already knew I had it,” she recalled. She was asked if she had any concerns after being told she was HIV positive.
“So you’re telling me I can’t have any more children?” Kennedy remembered blurting out. “The doctor told me it was the first time someone asked that question after hearing they were HIV positive.”
Kennedy has since had two more children and a grandson, all of whom are HIV negative thanks to adhering to prenatal preventative treatment during her last three pregnancies, she said.
“All that mattered was I had to protect the baby I was carrying,” she said. “I didn’t have time to worry about myself.”
Her viral load was very low when she gave birth to her last three children, so she was able to have vaginal births, she said. Transmission rates from mother to child are relatively low at 1%, if the mother takes medical precautions.
The mother of four, who hid her HIV status for 14 years because of the stigma attached to it, is using her story to help raise awareness of HIV. She is an author and an advocate for those who struggle with HIV or abuse.
The West Side native who now lives in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood said she spent more than a decade studying scriptures from her childhood to gain the courage to break her silence. Concerned with how her children might feel, she let them know her plans.
“One of my daughters said if disclosing your status helps someone, we are for you telling people,” she recalled. The morning of World Aids Day 2018, Kennedy posted on Youtube she was HIV positive.
Her family and her co-workers at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she worked as a certified nursing assistant, embraced her and remain her biggest support system, she said.
HIV stigma is still rooted in fear because of images that appeared in the early 1980s of people dying of AIDS-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New treatments help HIV patients reach a stage where it is undetectable and unable to infect others, and help patients live longer and healthier lives. But health officials say stigma and transmission of HIV are still issues, particularly in the Black community.
HIV-infection rates in Chicago were highest among Black gay men in 2019, according to Cynthia Tucker, AIDS Foundation Chicago vice president of Prevention and Community Partnerships. Tucker said she’s seen an increase in infection rates among Black women and Black trans women in health care settings that provide HIV treatment. In response, the organization has recently geared up to address infection and transmission rates, Tucker said.
The Elevate project targets Black women and trans women living with HIV/AIDS to line them up with employment and mental health services. A task force concentrates on educating providers and doctors on speaking to patients about medications such as PrEP to keep partners negative and ultimately slow down transmission rates in communities.
“The goal is to identify cases, address mental needs, help them secure and keep employment and place them under health care management,” Tucker said.
“Undetectable means ‘untransmittable,’” Tucker pointed out.
Many women don’t know they, too, can take PrEP because they view it as a male product, therefore, the conversation is not had, Tucker explained.
Though advertisements mention PrEP has not been studied in cisgendered persons assigned female at birth, Tucker said other studies in Africa have shown the product does work in women.
A big part in lowering rates of transmission in Black women and trans women is making sure they find and stay in care. Out of 81.5% of newly diagnosed HIV cases, only 41% have stayed under a doctor’s care, Tucker said.
Kennedy has been on HIV meds for about four years. Her HIV is undetectable as of July, she said, and recent lab work from the Howard Brown Health Center confirmed that.
“If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be here,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes our story is for someone else. If you tell your story, you can prevent someone from dying. My story is my gift, and God said your gift will make room for you.”
After disclosing her status on social media, Kennedy started self-publishing books starting with “Hope in Silence,” a compilation of scriptures that helped her get through having HIV.
She has written 11 books addressing the dangers of sharing your body freely with individuals who have not been honest or are unaware of their status. Her books are available on Amazon. She also posts weekly on her YouTube channel The Tea About HIV, used to educate others about the virus, and is planning to start a foundation committed to stopping HIV transmission in the Black community.
Kennedy hopes her ordeal of finding out she was HIV positive in the last trimester of her pregnancy will shed light on the importance of HIV testing, she said.
She said attending her first HIV/AIDS conference in September 2019, in Washington, cemented one of God’s promises stated in Proverbs 18:16: “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.”
“I was in the same room with powerful women who did not let HIV overcome them and were helping others,” Kennedy said. “It’s only the beginning for me. I will make a change in my community. My life is so good now. I sometimes forget I am HIV positive.”
Kennedy just celebrated her 40th birthday and said she is ready for a new chapter of her life to begin.
“I will be announcing a book signing for my latest book, which is a journal of my life with a few pieces from my children to show how they feel,” Kennedy said. “It’s all up from here. We are blessed.”