Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trenton News: National HIV Testing Day

Cookie Hernandez delivers "My Story" (Trenton News photo/JOEY KULKIN)

TRENTON -- "My Story" is her story was their story is our story.

Cookie celebrated her son's 6th birthday in 1988 by learning her husband had AIDS. 

Doctors said Lino would live for 3 weeks, tops. AIDS was a great unknown back then and scared the crap out of Americans. No one knew what it meant to have AIDS other than you must be gay to get it, and if you got it you died. 

Because Cookie and Lino were married 7 years, doctors told her to get tested.

"That's when you got tested and waited two weeks. There was no pre-testing counseling, no support," Cookie told the group of men and women inside the Trinity Cathedral Church on South Overbrook Drive in the west end of Trenton. Today was National HIV Testing Day, and Trinity Cathedral held 4 hours of programs to educate the public about HIV and AIDS. After her test Cookie went home "to be a mother, to be a wife, to be sane and insane."

Two weeks later doctors told Cookie she had AIDS, too. Her husband would be dead in a week. She passed out on the spot. 

She knew a few things about the sexually transmitted disease because she worked for the State of New Jersey in health and human services, but again, little was known about AIDS on August 27, 1988, when Cookie found out her husband had it. 

Back then we speculated about AIDs, not to mention there was another racist theory that went around for about a year before people started to realize how idiotic that theory was. Doctors told Cookie she had 6 months to 2 years to make peace with herself and the world.

"But it's 2012, and I'm still here," she told the room full of whites and blacks and browns, men and women, some of them who looked like they were on break from Econ 101 at Princeton, others who looked like they'd been on the pipe for 72 hours in a flophouse at the corner of Stuyvesant and Prospect.

Being told she had AIDS was nothing compared with the doctors who said 6-year-old Ricardo Hernandez, Cookie's boy, had to be tested, too. She was afraid to let doctors take Ricardo's blood because "it would be so unfair if my 6-year-old was infected." He wasn't. It was the happiest day in her life. But she had only 2 years to live, tops. So she began to teach the boy how to cook -- at 7 he became pretty darn good at making shrimp salad -- and taught him how to clean (and clean himself) and taught him a ton of other responsibilities to get him ready for the day she'd be dead of AIDS and he'd be on his own. "All I cared about was my son."

Back in '88 when Magic Johnson was winning another NBA title with the Lakers, AIDS patients had to take AZT -- a cocktail of pills every 4 hours "that made you sick," Cookie said. She couldn't hack the meds or the stringent 4-hour cycles anymore, so she quit AZT. "I decided I'd live 2 years OK instead of 10 years sick." And sick she got. Then a new AIDS med hit the market, she said, an Alka Seltzer-type lozenge the size of a half-dollar that you had to chew till it was goopy and foamy and soupy then swallow it without water.

About 40 people were transfixed on every word Cookie delivered in the ballroom of the church that had probably seen a few AIDS funerals. They ate lunch 30 minutes earlier. Wraps and fruit and butterfly pasta salad and tortilla chips and a terrific bean and corn dip. Soda and water. Great spread because the mission was to get butts in the seats to hear presentations by fighters like Cookie Hernandez then to go climb aboard the Project Impact motorhome to get an HIV test. 

The great thing about HIV testing in 2012, if there is such a "great thing" about HIV testing in 2012, is that they prick your finger to get a drop or two of blood. Results arrive in 15 minutes tops. While you wait for the scariest answer in the world, Pamela Hayes and Ron Furman provide counseling and advice. The test is free. 

Anyone who took one got a $25 gift card to Payless, a small consolation for a monumental moment. The test for a woman by the name of Cassandra from Rowan Towers came back negative. Watch the video below.

Lino Rosario was a teacher with two Master's degrees. Didn't do drugs as far as Cookie knew. She didn't starting putting 1 and 1 and 2 and 2 together till years later: Lino was living on the down-low and having sex with men. Cookie said his family knew but never told her. The "worse" in "for better and for worse" was a swift kick to her grits. Lino had gay sex then had marital sex and gave his wife AIDS. It killed him. 

She began to plan for Ricardo's future. One job paid the immediate bills and went toward her funeral. The other job paved the way for her son's future. She is a Puerto Rican of great strength, though, and the longer time marched on the longer Lourdez Hernandez marched on with it.

"Every August 27 I would pray to God to let me live a little longer so I could teach my son more," she said. She asked God to let her live long enough to see Ricardo graduate from the 5th grade. Then the 7th. Then the 9th, then 12th. "But God was great and allowed me to sit at my son's graduation with tears in my eyes. He allowed me to take my son to college and sit in his dorm room."

Cookie works for the New Jersey Association of Corrections, in an HIV program that deals with inmates who have HIV and are going back into society. She's been doing it for 11 years because it's her "passion" and because it gives them hope to see someone with AIDS alive and kicking 24 years after being told she had the death-sentence disease. It's important they hear this message, she said, "Because AIDS has come a long way, and because research has come a long way, and because medication has come a long way, and because education has come a long way." In 1996 her T-cell count was zero. Full-blown AIDS. "But I'm still here," Cookie told the crowd. She told the men and women of the early "bad days" when she wanted to kill her husband "because he gave me AIDS" but instead she decided to help him till the day he died." She has been with a man for 8 years. He knows she has AIDS "and he's OK with it."

All eyes and ears were on Cookie, except for a Princeton-looking woman in her 20s who picked at her cuticles and seemed to be a million miles away in a happy place with Biff the rower. The speaker told the rest of the crowd that being safe with 30 partners is so very different than taking that gamble. "All you have to do is have sex with a person one time and that person has HIV -- it only takes on partner."

These days Cookie takes one pill a day, the same pill, she said, that Magic Johnson takes to control his HIV. Magic, whose wife's name is Cookie, told the world in November 1992 that he was retiring from the NBA because he had HIV. That's when HIV and AIDS got serious. The pill Magic and Cookie and thousands of others with HIV or AIDS take is called Atripla. It controls Cookie's AIDS but makes her life miserable in other ways: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglicerides, gives her allergies. But it still beats the alternative. As she wrapped up, her message was loud and clear:

"None of us is good enough to take someone else's life in our hands," she said.

Minutes later she was finished and walked away from the podium to a standing ovation. Many of those clapping their hands walked outside and climbed into the motorhome to let Trenton's Project Impact team prick their fingers to draw a pinhead of blood.

Cassandra takes literature on HIV/AIDS

Testing and counseling are free, always