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Vivacious mom with AIDS virus publicizes risks to black women

Thursday, May 30, 2002

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every few months, Sheila Taylor invites a few dozen strangers and friends into the living room of her Beltzhoover house and breezily announces that she is HIV-positive.

Sheila Taylor, who was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1998, holds her 7-month-old daughter, Precious. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Then she pokes the tips of her pink and silver nails into a condom and demonstrates how to use it properly.

Gay, straight, transsexual, bisexual, black and white -- they all gape at the vivacious woman with the stylish clothes until someone inevitably interrupts: "But you look great. How could you possibly have HIV?"

"That's the point," she says. Go get tested.

Taylor likes to give Safe Sex Parties, where, titillating title aside, there is no sex, just discussions of sex. Her advocacy is a big step in her growth as an HIV-infected black woman, a growing population locally.

Two years ago, Taylor rarely admitted that she had the virus that causes AIDS, and would have never broadcast it to strangers.

After all, she figured a black woman didn't have to worry about AIDS, and when she got the virus from unprotected sex in 1998, she was both seething and terrified about becoming an outcast. It was her shameful little secret, one that caused a relapse into her crack addiction.

But today, the 38-year-old mother of three children, including a 7-month-old baby named Precious, is both clean and an ardent AIDS activist. She will be among the several thousand people at the AIDS Community Day at Schenley Park in Oakland from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Taylor will hand out brochures all day and warn that black women are at risk, too.

The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force has seen a sharp increase in black women as clients. Of the PATF's 393 clients today, 75 or 19 percent are black women. That compares to 1990, when less than 2 percent of its clients were black women.

Nationally, of the 136,219 AIDS cases among women reported since the beginning of the epidemic, 78,836, or 58 percent, are black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We are not white and gay. We don't think we can get it. Little do we know. A lot of black bisexual men, they are undercover," Taylor says, meaning that they conceal their homosexual activity. "That is why African-American women are getting it."

Taylor gives her personalized dose of reality to pretty black teen-age girls she meets in schools, at friends' homes, at bus stops -- wherever she goes.

"You can get this, too. I think I am beautiful, and look at me."

Taylor, of Beltzhoover, has her blood pressure checked by nurse Judith Geiselhart while feeding her daughter Precious before a doctor's appointment at the East End Community Health Center. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Long road back

Here is a typical day for Sheila Taylor.

Go to Oakland for an 8:30 a.m. doctor's appointment and blood work. Rush her husband, Lawrence Davis, to Shadyside Hospital for 10:30 a.m. chemotherapy for his lung cancer. Feed Precious a bottle in the hospital waiting room.

Zoom Downtown for noontime support group of the Seven Project, a group for blacks infected and affected by AIDS. Go to a 1:45 p.m. gynecology exam in East Liberty. Rush to her job as a security guard in a Downtown garage by 3 p.m.

Lawrence, who lost an arm in a shooting and is exhausted from the chemo, drops her off Downtown and drives home.

"We can't afford to look sick or act sick even though we are sick," Taylor says matter-of-factly.

In fact, Taylor seems more vibrant than most people who are not staring down an incurable disease. The 109-pound woman fills up the room with her presence.

Wearing a red and tanned striped sweater over tan pants and matching red and tan shoes, she steps on the scale at the doctor's office and says, "I want to be 125. Bam." She pushes back her shoulders and smiles saucily at her imaginary bulk.

But she stays slim because of her high metabolism, not the HIV infection.

For someone infected with HIV, Taylor knows she is lucky. She takes five pills a day and feels no side effects. The virus is present at a low level, described as "undetectable," meaning the medications are successfully suppressing it.

"What's the difference between Magic Johnson and me?" she asks. "He is a man and makes a lot of money. It's not detectable in him and it's not detectable in me."

She didn't always feel so blessed.

In fact, when Dr. Christine Andrews told her in September of 1998 that she had tested positive for HIV, Taylor shot her family doctor a murderous look before storming out. "I wanted to choke her," said Taylor, who now adores Andrews.

Taylor figured she was going to die. Even though she had been clean for six months, she reverted to her old ways, crack and alcohol.

She had started abusing drugs 15 years ago as a 23-year-old woman living in Philadelphia, going to clubs with friends. "Sad to say, I was pregnant with my son when I started."

A year later, she got together with Davis, then a drug dealer, and began to steal money and drugs from him. Taylor was so self-absorbed she would ignore her two children's problems in school. But she was a functional addict who held jobs busing tables, cleaning hotel rooms and working in a supermarket deli.

When Davis got arrested in 1998 for dealing drugs, it gave her a jolt. "I knew if I didn't get things together, I was heading for destruction."

The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1998 so she could enroll in Sojourner House, an East Liberty treatment center for addicted women and their children. She stopped using drugs and felt grounded.

Taylor raises her candle in memory of those who have died of AIDS at the 19th annual International Candlelight memorial outside Heinz Chapel in Oakland. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Then she learned she had the AIDS virus. She figured it was a death sentence. She reverted to crack and downing gin and Long Island Ice Teas every night at a bar.

Her daughter, Sheilia now 20, was so disgusted she moved out of the house.

"I was selfish and moody," Taylor says, talking about herself in another life.

"And arrogant," Sheilia adds.

"Oh my goodness, she was very angry," said Sharon Jones, certified addictions counselor at Operation Nehemiah, the treatment center in East Liberty she was attending when diagnosed with the virus. "If you said 'left,' she said 'right.' Her biggest obstacle was her HIV status. She was blaming everyone but herself. She blamed the people she hung out with. She blamed the people who gave her the results. She blamed the people who gave her the drugs."

She even blamed her husband in jail -- until he tested negative.

Once Taylor dealt with the HIV issue, Jones said, she was able to deal with her addiction and her attitude improved dramatically. She graduated from the program -- but got back on drugs because of an unhealthy relationship.

It was the prospect of another daughter that finally got her to stop again. In March of 2001, Taylor learned she was six weeks pregnant. She kicked her addiction by going to the House of Hope, a drug and alcohol treatment center for pregnant women in Braddock, and Zora, a program in Homewood.

Taylor was terrified of passing on the AIDS virus to her baby -- so she took various AIDS medications during the pregnancy and received intravenous AZT during labor and delivery. Precious was given AZT during her first six weeks of life.

A pregnant woman who takes her AIDs medications may reduce her chance of passing the virus onto the baby to 10 percent or less, said Dr. Susan Hunt, Taylor's doctor and medical director of the Pittsburgh AIDS Center for Treatment.

Precious has no traces of HIV. Her mother loves hugging and kissing the 14-pound baby.

"No one has ever suggested that a negative child cannot be reared by an HIV-infected mother," Hunt says. "You can kiss them and hug them and bathe them. We ask HIV-infected women not to breast feed."

Today, Sheila Taylor is an open book about a disease that once mortified her. It was her public speaking that helped her find a new identity as an AIDS activist. She used to carry her HIV status around like "a heavy load. I wasn't comfortable around people."

Then she began public speaking in 1999 as part of her outreach job with Mon Yough Community Services' drug and alcohol program.

The first time she stood in front of a group of strangers, she was a nervous wreck. But people asked her questions and seemed interested. "Once I discovered I was making a difference in people's lives, that is when I got acceptance and felt good about myself."

Counselors who work with Taylor say it's the rare woman who can help others because there's such a stigma of AIDS "as an unladylike disease associated with sex and drugs."

Taylor plans to get a GED at Community College of Allegheny County and then pursue a degree in social work so she can continue to help other people with HIV or AIDS.

She doesn't intend to die anytime soon, knowing full well that people who take their AIDS medications may live many years without getting sick.

Bouncing Precious on her lap, she says, "I plan to see my baby's baby."

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