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[UNIFIERS] Jose Duarte’s Community Pride Means Mobilized Care for HIV+ Patients

Dear Valued Reader,

Hey there, it’s Indigo (they/them). As a team, Youth To The People collectively decided that the best way to show up this year is to be honest and show ourselves. That inspired me to show the community who I am and how I live my pride. 

When I was asked to participate in this campaign I did not hesitate. I identify as non-binary, and to share that with you all brings me tremendous joy. I am happy I can be an example, to show someone that things will be okay, and no matter what you feel on the inside or if you’re scared to let people in to help you, things will get better. You just have to find your community and your support and create your safe space. 

I am beyond excited to share with you one of the members of my local community in celebration of them and how they help me live with Pride. I first met Jose Duarte at the age of 22 when I was newly diagnosed with HIV. Back then, I felt like my world was crashing down around me; I felt like I had nowhere to turn to or anyone to talk to about what I was facing. Aside from the physical health degradation I was experiencing, I also struggled with my mental and emotional well-being. That’s where Jose came in to save the day. 

I want to honor Jose by showcasing him on a larger scale and amplifying his voice to those within the YTTP community. Without Jose, I do not know where I would be today. 

To Jose, I thank you, honor you, and love you for helping me find my way as you have done for countless others! 

To the reader, may this article bring you a better understanding of the disease so you are able to truly see what it means to be here, be positive, and be proud of who you are. 

With love and with pride,

Indigo Skye (they/them)

 

By Denne Michelle Norris, she/her

Imagine being eighteen years old, gay, and Puerto Rican. Now imagine testing positive for HIV. As if that’s not scary enough, imagine that it’s 1991, that the AIDS crisis is arguably at its most dire, and that doctors and scientists know very little about treating the life-threatening disease. Imagine it taking a toll on your body. Imagine that your family, the people who are supposed to stand by you through thick and thin, view your sexual identity as a sin. 

Every day, Jose Duarte, a referral specialist at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), funnels that experience into the work he does as an advocate and case manager who cares directly for patients with HIV. Though Duarte has never been closeted about his sexual identity, the same sense of freedom and pride in himself that guides him in his work today was not always easy for him. 

“I knew that I couldn’t count on my family for support, so I needed to find people who would support me.” In his care managers, Duarte found an entire community of people dedicated to caring for him, alerting him to resources, and keeping his spirits up. “Thirty-one years ago, there was no medication. There was no hope. Support began with telling people they were positive, and praying they stayed alive.”

Duarte remembers the difficulty of those years in a visceral way, but he’s quick to note that the support he received didn’t end with his diagnosis. He credits his own case managers from all those years ago as the people who motivated him to pursue his degree and build a career. 

“All I had were the people in the clinics to guide me. But they guided me, and as I started to grow up, I realized how so many people were in the exact same situation as me, but didn’t have the same kind of high-quality support and care that I had,” he says. “My own story showed me how vital a good case manager can be, especially for someone who’s been recently diagnosed.” His gratitude for his own good fortune inspires him every day to provide the same care and positive energy for his patients. He’s a people person, who loves working with as many folks as possible, and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious. 

In his current role with AHF, Duarte operates as the nucleus of all the resources the organization has to offer those in its care. From HIV testing and diagnoses to primary care, AHF is considered the leader in employing the latest medical research to pioneer the most cutting-edge treatments. Duarte works with hundreds of patients in a year—he works with them closely, and over a sustained amount of time. He says the relationships they build give him purpose and are crucial in ensuring that they get state-of-the-art care. He came to AHF specifically to increase the number of patients he could serve, and the ways in which he could serve them. 

“I love knowing that I’m helping people get back on track. I’m giving back because of everything others have given to me,” he says.   

These days, the conversation around HIV is radically different than it was back when Duarte was first facing his own diagnosis. He says that working in HIV care is a lot like working on Wall Street, simply because the realities of life with HIV are constantly changing. 

“When I was 25, 26, I was taking 59 pills a day to keep myself alive. Five years ago is different from two years ago is different from now. Two years ago we didn’t have injectable treatments. The advancements we’ve made are astounding,” he says, also noting that one of the keys to his success has been the medical and scientific advancements of the last few years. “Every single one of my patients has distinct needs. We have to meet them where they are, and it never gets boring because they’re all in different places.” 

The other key to his success? His love for the work he does and his ability to stay positive with the people in his care. 

“I don’t see it as a job. I’m just giving back to my community for all the people who gave to me. I call them my angels,” Duarte says. 

Imagine being that same man, only 31 years later. Imagine decades of working with HIV patients, finding resources and medical care. Imagine spending your life’s work being the person you needed when you were young. Jose Duarte has no regrets: “If I hadn’t become HIV positive at that age, my life wouldn’t have the same meaning it does now.”

Written by Denne Michelle Norris for Youth To The People

If you or someone you know need to find where to get an HIV test, you can access your local testing sites here:

HIV.gov

CDC.gov

To continue the conversation and education, please refer to the following websites:

Youth.gov

Youth.org