Most of us are familiar with the anxiety following a medical test; having to wait days, sometimes weeks for the results. In 1997 Gail Graham went to the doctors for a routine HIV screening and on April 29, 1997 her results came back positive. She was shaken to say the least. As a mother of two young boys, her first thought was, “I just want to live long enough to see them graduate.”
The stigma of having HIV is something that has affected Gail’s life in many ways. Following her diagnosis, she reveals how some of her family members began treating her differently – even going as far as forcing her to use paper plates and cups. However, she also shares her gratitude for her family and friends who chose to educate themselves about HIV. She proudly notes how her two sons speak openly with their peers about HIV.
Gail also explains how her religious faith has changed over the years. She was raised a Jehovah’s Witness but had since stopped practicing. However, in 2006, with the encouragement of her best friend, she attended a church service at Mt. Lebanon, a Baptist church in Baltimore, Maryland. After the service, Gail was interested but hesitant in joining the church. “I was afraid that if my diagnosis became public, somehow it would make the church look bad,” she explains. Gail made a request to speak with the church’s pastor, Reverend Franklin Lance. She recalls Pastor Lance’s heartfelt and welcoming words: “’Gail this is your ministry.’” In the years since that conversation, with the support of her pastor, Gail has taken an active role at church. As the Director of HIV/AIDS Outreach Services and Ministry, she has created a much-needed safe haven for community members to receive free confidential HIV screening and counseling.
Gail’s role at Mt. Lebabon has enabled her to connect with various local churches and organizations. She stresses the need for services in her community, due to the high rates of HIV/AIDS in Baltimore. But, she also shares her initial hesitancy in working with all groups saying, “We had a lot of people coming to our community and not giving anything back.” So, when Gail was invited to an event held by the PATIENTS Program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, she was reluctant. However, due to their persistence in collaborating, she invited members of the program to exhibit at Mt. Lebanon’s World Aids Day event. Gail shares her surprise upon witnessing the way they engaged with community members. She notes, “They were not only talking to people, but holding their hands.” This simple gesture is something that she says professionals often lack when counseling individuals who are HIV positive.
Gail’s journey also led her to become involved in clinical research. In March of 2014 she joined an HIV/AIDS clinical trials group at Johns Hopkins University. This gave her an opportunity to learn more about ongoing research, but she had a desire to do more. “How can I be on this board but not be a part of research?” She spoke with her doctor who recommended a trial at the National Institutes of Health. Gail recalls her experience as a very positive one and how the research staff made her feel valuable. In addition, she learned many new things about her disease from the study findings. Although the trial ended early because the medication was not effective, Gail says, “I would gladly do it again.”
Today, thanks to advances in medical research, Gail is happy to report that her disease is undetectable and untransmittable. To others diagnosed with HIV she stresses, “It’s just a diagnosis; it’s not you. You can still live a long and healthy life.” To learn more about Mt. Lebanon’s HIV/AIDS ministry click here. To find clinical trials in your area fill out our Search Request Form.
Written by Leslie Perez, Marketing and Communications Coordinator