Robert Blankenship is living well with HIV, and he is grateful. He credits family, friends and three organizations — El Rio’s Special Immunology Associates, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation and Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network (TIHAN) — with helping him evolve to a healthy, positive juncture after contracting HIV more than a decade ago from a girlfriend.
“I am glad to be here and to be part of this. As goofy as it sounds, if I had to do it over again, I don’t know if I would change things. I have met so many wonderful people and I have a lot to be thankful for,” said Blankenship, 57.
“We all work together and there is this nice bubble to take care of people who are infected with HIV. It is a strong community and it is getting stronger. There is real camaraderie — we all look out for each other, and TIHAN is a big part of that.”
TIHAN is a coalition of 48 congregations of different faith communities that offers education to clergy and laity as well as outreach and support services to those living with HIV/AIDS (CarePartners).
Blankenship is particularly excited about TIHAN’s new Living Well With HIV classes, a series that emphasizes long-term empowerment and helps educate people on topics ranging from re-entering the workforce and taking control of their lives to optimize productivity and well-being.
Blankenship said he has benefited from several classes including Eating Well, Living Well — Increasing Food Literacy for People With HIV.
“I’ve been pushing for these types of informational classes for a few years. They are doing one called ‘Aging With HIV’ and that is relevant for so many people. I am pushing 60, and all the things that affect a person with good health can be more demanding on someone with HIV,” he said.
He is eagerly anticipating “To Tell or Not To Tell: Deciding If and When to Disclose Your HIV Status,” which will be held this Thursday, and hopes that this type of communication and education will help reduce the silence and stigma still surrounding the disease.
“For a number of years the only people who knew about my HIV were my doctors and me. It is not something you really want to advertise, because of ignorance,” Blankenship said.
More than 1.1 million people nationwide are living with HIV/AIDS, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, it is estimated that one of every six persons living with HIV is unaware he or she has the virus.
TIHAN Executive Director Scott Blades said testing and diagnosis is vital so people benefit from continued advances in HIV treatment and management that have resulted in improved quality of life and long-term prognoses for many living with the disease.
“It is scary thinking about living with HIV, especially if you are newly diagnosed, because there is a perception many people have that HIV is a death sentence, and that is no longer the case,” he said.
“HIV doesn’t have to be about the end of life: It can be about new beginnings and new hope. For most people, if they get medical care and have support, they can have a nice long life expectancy with good quality of life. We don’t want HIV to limit them and define them any more than it has to, and Living Well With HIV and our other programs are designed to help people be as independent as they want to be.”