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Long-term Survivors

#34 of Our Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016: Patricia Johnson

#34 of Our Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016: Patricia Johnson

Pat Johnson

This long-term survivor thanks God that HIV has made her the woman she is today.

Doctors told Patricia Johnson’s parents to “get ready,” because in two years she would most likely be dead. That prediction accompanied Johnson’s HIV diagnosis— a quarter century ago. Clearly, fate had other plans for this African-American woman from Chicago.

The now 53-year-old mother of eight is also a proud grandmother to fifteen (plus one on the way). Her ever present smile is a mirror into a life fully blessed: bright, strong, and continuously grateful.

As a medical case manager at Lawndale Christian Health Center, Johnson has worked tirelessly to slow the speed of new HIV infections among the Chicago’s most vulnerable communities, particularly those in the city’s West Side. This June, she celebrated her tenth year at the center; but insists, "don’t you dare call it a 'job!'" Its more like a calling, one of the things Johnson’s most proud of in her life — after all, she says, it was communities like this that saved her life.

Although Johnson believes she contracted HIV when she was raped in 1989, she wasn’t officially diagnosed until her newborn son tested positive in 1992, when she says, “I was nowhere and going fast, but my misery was interrupted by HIV.”

But what was at first a death sentence quickly turned into something else: a blessing: “[God turned] what was meant to destroy me into a thing of honor and beauty to build me,” she says. “What an awesome God!”

It wasn’t just her connection to God that led Johnson to turn her life around. It was also community. “I started going to support groups and I didn’t say a lot,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2010. “I just sat there and listened. And a lady, she’s passed on now, she said to me, ‘You don’t have to say much, honey, just be here.’ And she grabbed my hand, and the women in that room became my new family.”

It’s funny, in retrospect, that Johnson was so quiet in those early days; because now she’s known for using her engaging voice and sharp tongue to rally troops and start the kind of passionate conversations that spread all the way to Washington, D.C. where they echo through the halls of Congress. And she does it all with flare.

Johnson may spend countless hours trying to reshape cultural mindsets about HIV, but that’s not enough for this advocate. She’s also an active member of AIDS Foundation of Chicago's Illinois Alliance for Sound AIDS Policy, a project to develop and support statewide policy and advocacy leaders who understand HIV. An opponent of HIV criminialization laws, Johnson has lent her voice to call out those in the state capitol who favor unjust and discriminatory legislation. She speaks unabashed and unafraid like a woman who’s been through hell and back: bruised, but never broken.

“I never expected in my wildest imagination that God will help me to see [24] more years after my diagnosis,” she tells Plus. “Being able to serve people with HIV/AIDS has richly blessed me to be able to give back, to enhance and enrich their lives with experience and love that God has given me through my journey living with HIV.”

Like most poz people, Johnson says she knows her life would have been different without the disease, but for Johnson, different doesn’t mean better. “HIV has made me the woman I am today,” she reflects. “I’m not perfect but it has given me a perspective on life that I could have never seen before my diagnosis and my mental state of being.”

In addition, she says, “I have traveled to places I know I would never had been able to go, spoken to people in many venues I know I would have never been invited [to]. I’ve been on TV, radio, Internet, in the papers all because of being HIV-positive. I am a simple type of girl who knew God has a plan for my life, but this wasn’t what I expected!"

Johnson is on the verge of a whole new set of accomplishments: in the next year she hopes to restart her women support group, travel to Ghana, and marry her fiancé. But not before, she adds with a smile, she “loses 50 pounds.”

DAVID ARTAVIA is a New York writer and the founder of Real Gay Guy. He loves living vicariously through his friends. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page. 

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