For a good portion of her life, Alexis Gibson knew the stigma of having HIV can take just as big of a toll as having the virus. A lifetime of taunts and discrimination taught her that it probably would be easier hiding the truth about her health.
But Gibson doesn’t want to hide. She wants to fight.
“We need to change the way we talk about HIV,” Gibson says. “With my story, I would like to show the world how far we have come in education and medical treatment. I would like to show people that HIV is not the threat we once thought it was.”
As an HIV care specialist with Mobile Mental Health Support Services, 24-year-old Gibson can educate the community about the virus using her life as an example. She hopes to reduce the stigma of HIV and help patients find a more normal life.
Gibson was born with HIV, passed along by her mother who at the time was unaware she had the virus. Gibson wasn’t diagnosed until she was 2 years old, after her mother received the same diagnosis.
“The whole thing changed our family dynamic,” Gibson says. “My mother and I were positive while my dad and brother were negative. We were once a happy family, and that all changed.”
Her mother was given only six months to live but fought for several years, dying when Gibson was 4.
All the while, Gibson was never shy about who she was. As a result, she faced hatred and discrimination growing up in California.
“I grew up knowing I had HIV and couldn’t keep my mouth shut about it,” she says. “I didn’t know I needed to.”
On the best days when she was in elementary and middle school, Gibson would sit isolated from her classmates with her long hair draped over her face to shield herself from the taunts. On the worst days, classmates would throw paper wads and pennies to pick on her.
“Somehow the teachers always missed this,” she says.
Gibson was pegged incorrectly as the girl with AIDS. Whenever she felt ill or had a nosebleed, school officials didn’t know how to handle Gibson and would just send her home.
“A kid wrote ‘Lexi has AIDS’ on the science door in seventh grade,” she says.
Life was complicated at home, too.
“I was an obnoxious child, but it was because I was hurting and confused,” she says. “My dad was heartbroken and honestly doing the best he could. I understand that now.”
She began to refuse to take her medications.
“The medications had hard side effects as your body gets used to them,” Gibson says. “I would always throw them up.”
One day, after another altercation with a family member at home, her father dropped her off at a group home.
“And he never came back to pick me up,” she says.
Gibson didn’t stay long at the group home, instead bouncing back and forth among friends’ houses. After about a month at the first group home, her older sister asked Gibson to stay with her in San Francisco.
“She told me, ‘I think all you really just need is love,’ ” Gibson says.
This arrangement also fell through and the effects of not taking the medications became more severe.
“I ended up at a children’s hospital,” she says. “My body was shutting down. At that point, I was on the verge of AIDS.”
Gibson needed a reliable place to go, and ended up with her sister’s boss, who persuaded her to stick with her medicine. But Gibson was still dealing with emotional trauma from her past that made the next three years difficult.
“She tried to nurture me and mend me,” she says.
But Gibson says she took to the streets, getting involved with sex, drugs and alcohol. She was sent to live with an aunt on the East Coast for a month.
During the interim, her guardian arranged for her to go to a group home called Solstice RTC in Salt Lake City. She was 17 and stayed in the program for a year. Her counselors helped her work through past trauma and better formulate a life plan.
After she finished the program, she went on to Snow College in Utah.
Taking time off from college, Gibson made her way to Las Vegas two years ago.
She recently finished her degree in human services from the University of Phoenix. During her time there, she took a class taught by Tanitsha Bridgers, CEO of Mobile Mental Health Support Services.
“She did a presentation on HIV and just blew me away,” Bridgers says.
After the class, Bridgers and Gibson reconnected.
“She needed to do an internship for her degree,” Bridgers adds.
Mobile Mental Health provides services for all types of people who suffer from depression, anxiety or other problems. Having Gibson as an advocate, the company has expanded its outreach to help those with HIV.
“I think her transparency and willingness to talk about the disease is going to help reach a population that typically stays isolated,” Bridgers says.
Gibson says helping others with the virus was something her mother would have been proud of. While looking at family memorabilia, Gibson discovered that her mother had been active raising awareness about living with HIV, including a newspaper article.
Gibson also appeared in a collection of books and articles throughout her life from authors and photographers who followed children living with the disease.
Like her mother, she hopes to be bold in sharing her story as an HIV and AIDS care specialist.
“She is a rock star and very tenacious,” Bridgers says. “She is going to do great.”
In her new role, she will work directly with those newly infected with HIV. Gibson works with clients at any point in coping with HIV in her role as HIV care specialist.
“When someone tests positive, they feel like they’ve lost control of their life,” Gibson says. “But we help them regain control of their life. This disease doesn’t change who you are.”
Gibson’s dream is to open a mental health center specifically for those with HIV that has support groups, education and even job resources.
But helping clients is just part of what she is doing. Gibson wants to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV.
Dr. Rosanne Sugay, an HIV specialist with the Southern Nevada Health District, says HIV isn’t what it used to be.
“It is amazing in the past 30 years we went from not knowing what the disease was to having medications that control it,” Sugay says. “We don’t have a cure, but we have gotten pretty good at controlling it with one pill a day.”
Medications today help to keep the virus undetectable, which means the virus is so low in a person’s body it doesn’t register on certain tests.
When a person is newly infected, many doctors, under the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, recommend getting on medications to achieve undetectable status.
When a person is undetectable, Sugay says, there is a pretty low chance of spreading the virus.
“It’s not zero (percent) but it’s very low,” she says.
Gibson says the medication has greatly improved her quality of life. Through the Affordable Care Act, she has access to health insurance, which has allowed her to have better access to life-saving medications.
But there remains a stigma and fear when it comes to HIV.
“I still get people who think you can spread it by sharing utensils,” Sugay says. Gibson adds she often has to assure people it’s not passed through kissing or holding hands.
There are many ways people are trying to reduce the stigma of having HIV.
Sugay says there should be a push for universal screening as part of a doctor’s visit.
“People should get tested and know their status,” she says. “It’s not a life sentence anymore.”
Beyond creating broader awareness of the issue, Gibson hopes to help newly infected patients find their way back to normality.
“I’m still alive,” Gibson says. “No matter what happens, I’m here to finish what my mother started.”
Contact reporter Michael Lyle at email@example.com or 702-387-5201. Follow @mjlyle on Twitter.