A Day in the Life: Living With HIV

PHOTO: Richard Cordova, 33, is one of more than a million Americans living with HIV.PlayCourtesy Victoria Allen
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Two mornings a week, Richard Cordova gets up before daylight, grabs his gym bag and a cup of coffee, and heads to the Lakeview Athletic Club in Chicago to teach a grueling, high-energy 6 a.m. spin class.

"It's a little intense," Cordova says with a sly smile. The dozens of sweaty and exhausted class members who file out of the cycling studio can bear testament to that fact.

At age 33, with seemingly boundless energy, Cordova looks like the picture of health. He has completed seven marathons, three 200-mile bike rides and a triathlon. He is an athlete, a community activist and one of 1.2 million Americans living with HIV.

"I'm the face of HIV. It could be the person serving you your coffee, the child at school that sits next to your child, the person who's cutting your hair, your co-worker," said Cordova, "You probably know someone who is HIV positive, you just don't know that they're HIV positive."

Today, Cordova will be one of many taking a snapshot during his day -- helping to chronicle "A Day With HIV in America." A number of the photos emailed to this website http://www.adaywithhivinamerica.com/ will appear online and in Positively Aware magazine -- a bimonthly publication with circulation of more than 100,000. The magazine targets those who treat and live with HIV.

Check out this slideshow featuring some of last year's snapshots from "A Day With HIV in America."

"My goal was to get a slice of life on one single day," said Jeff Berry, who edits the magazine. "It creates a virtual community of people sharing their stories of what life with HIV means, and doesn't mean."

Berry is asking HIV positive and negative people to send in photos that depict how they live with HIV in America.

"The whole point was to tear away at some of the stigma of living with HIV and break down some of the barriers," said Berry. "Those barriers create fear and stop people from getting proper care and treatment."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading HIV researcher who now directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes those stigmas cost lives. Twenty percent of the more than a million Americans living with HIV are unaware they have the virus. Of the 56,000 new cases of HIV diagnosed each year, the majority are now African-American gay men.

"People are reluctant to get tested for a number of reasons. Some don't have access to health care, others don't want to put themselves in a position because of the recognized stigma of a certain lifestyle and the fact that you may be infected, which would compound the stigmatization," explained Fauci.

But getting those at risk into care as early as possible, Fauci said, is the best way to prevent the spread of HIV.

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"If you are infected and you are on adequate and appropriate therapy, you can bring down the level of virus in your system so that you decrease by well over 95 percent the likelihood that you will transmit your infection to other people," said Fauci. "We've got to get clergy, community leaders to say this is not a stigma. You've got to go and get tested. You've got to get yourself into a health care system so that if you're not infected you can get instruction on how to stay that way, and if you are infected, you get lifesaving therapy. And the bonus is you won't be infecting your partner."

When Cordova was diagnosed nine years ago, his life looked completely different. He was addicted to drugs, and engaged in risky behavior.

"I thought that I had an expiration date. I thought I wouldn't live to see 30. I thought that nobody would love me and that I would die alone."

Now, nearly a decade into treatment and sobriety, he is a motivational speaker and a project manager at the Test Positive Aware Network, is in a relationship and training for yet another 100-mile bike ride. Living with HIV means regular doctor visits, and taking one pill a day.

"HIV is just part of who I am, but it doesn't define me," said Cordova.

When Berry was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, many others who got the same news were told they'd only have months to live. Drug therapy has given him a future.

Now, he hopes the photos provided by others who have HIV will send a message of inspiration.

"It's helpful to have these positive images," said Berry, "if it gets more people to get tested and into care, I'll feel really good about this."