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MAN runs up the stairs into the offices of Health4Men, a male sexual health organisation in De Waterkant, Cape Town. “I need to get tested. Please!” he begs. Renaldo Adams (38), a field worker for Health4Men, says calmly, “I’m able to assist you.” He knows all too well what the man is going through – this time last year he was in a state too, aware something was wrong and as terrified as he was desperate to get to the bottom of it. Plagued with health problems and fatigue, he suspected he was HIV-positive so he steeled himself to take a test. And when it came back positive his loved ones refused to let him see it as a death sentence. Instead, it was something he had to learn to live with – which is exactly what he has done. Today Renaldo is part of a team doing research to find out how to spread the safe sex message in the gay communities of South Africa’s townships. Until recently he was better known as an isiXhosa-speaking doctor in SABC2’s Montana, a skollie in Egoli and the CIA agent known as The Shadow in Interrogation Room. Now he’s a poster boy for living positively with HIV and has a real purpose in his life. Renaldo used to be obsessed with flashy cars, label clothes and designer furniture. He drove a BMW 320 and an Audi A4. These days he’s quite happy behind the wheel of his blue Golf Chicco with the dogs in the back. There are more important things in life than material possessions. RENALDO grew up in Butterworth, Transkei, in a coloured township that consisted of little more than two rows of houses. He was the baby of the family, some 20 years younger than his older sisters and brothers. Everyone fussed over him, says Shirley Adams, Renaldo’s brother Peter’s wife and his close friend and confidante. Renaldo grew up with immense respect for his mother, who singlehandedly raised five daughters and six sons. With only a Grade 8 education, she worked as a cleaner at a hotel but hoped to become a herbalist one day. “She was such a free spirit,” he says. “She had no husband and didn’t have to answer to anyone.” He was shattered when she died in 1983 from complications after a gallstone operation.

72 | 7 January 2010 dRum

MY CRUSADE against hiv

Renaldo adams has leaRned to live healthily with the hi viRus and now helps otheRs do the same

pic supplied

MAIN PICTURE: Renaldo Adams is a field worker at Health4Men, a sexual health organisation based in Cape Town. LEFT: Renaldo has put his acting career on hold to pursue his passion for HIV activism. ABOVE: As a toddler with his mom, Francis. Renaldo was 13 and it was around that time he realised he was gay. Shirley was the first person he told about his sexual orientation. “We love you; we will be here to support you,” Shirley promised. AFTER seven years of working as a flight attendant, Renaldo moved to Cape Town where he met his first boyfriend and found work as an actor. But it wasn’t until last year that he came to know someone who was openly HIV-positive. He thought it better not to know his status – what you don’t know won’t kill you, he reasoned. Yet it was there in the back of his mind. There’d been those rare casual sexual encounters when he hadn’t been as careful as he should’ve been . . . Alarm bells started to ring when he developed a skin rash that looked like eczema. His heels cracked and started bleeding, his lungs felt as heavy as lead and he was constantly short of breath. “I also became very absent-minded. I was tired all the time and just wanted to sleep. I knew there had to be some reason for all this.” In December last year he went to a clinic in Parklands, Cape Town. His finger was pricked and within 15 minutes he knew his status. “I got tested,” Renaldo said over the phone to Shirley. She knew immediately

he’d tested HIV-positive and she was terrified. “But I knew I had to be strong and pull myself together,” she says. Renaldo was also shattered. “I felt contaminated – as if I were dying,” he says. His CD4 count, which measures the body’s ability to fight infection, was 61. A healthy person’s count is between 800 to 1 000. “I felt like giving up,” he says. But then Shirley took charge. She knew the first step was for him to put on weight and regain his strength. She arrived at his home with powdered milk, baby porridge, eggs, vanilla essence and peanut butter and whipped up nutritious meals and drinks for him. By the time the rest of the family heard of his status and came to visit, they thought Shirley had exaggerated. By then he was on ARVs and looked well again. “You have to spread this message of hope,” Shirley told him. And so he did. He joined Health4Men and has made it his mission to educate, enlighten and inspire. HIV has changed his life – now he wants to help change the lives of others. Q PIETER VAN ZyL Is A FELLOw OF THE HIV/AIDs & THE MEDIA PROjECT, A PARTNERsHIP BETwEEN THE PERINATAL HIV REsEARCH UNIT AND THE jOURNALIsM PROgRAMME AT THE UNIVERsITy OF THE wITwATERsRAND. THIs ARTICLE Is MADE POssIBLE By THE sUPPORT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE THROUgH THE UNITED sTATEs AgENCy FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (UsAID). sOURCEs: CHARL HATTINgH, CLINICAL PsyCHOLOgIsT; PROF. gLENDA gRAy, DIRECTOR OF PERINATAL HIV REsEARCH UNIT (PHRU) AT CHRIs HANI BARAgwANATH HOsPITAL; HELEN sTRUTHERs, PROgRAMME DIRECTOR AT THE PHRU; PROFEssOR ELNA MCINTOsH, sEXOLOgIsT AT DIsA HEALTH CARE, www.sAFERsEX.CO.ZA

Renaldo’s tips on disclosing youR status

Q Get help. It’s a good idea to have a third person there when you disclose your status, such as a medical expert who can explain the test results. Q Be ready for questions. People always ask how you got it and who you got it from. You don’t have to answer these questions but try to be as open and informative as possible.

Q Choose who you tell carefully. Once you tell someone, they won’t forget. Q If your illness or treatments interfere with your work, you should tell your employer. Tell them you want to continue working, and discuss what changes may be needed in your schedule or workload. Health4Men: 021-425-6463

if someone discloses to you . . .

Q Do not ask: who did you get it from? When did you get it? These questions shift the focus away from treatment and planning. Q Understand that they are feeling emotional. They fear rejection as well as sickness and death.

Q Be aware of your own feelings. What are your fears and concerns? Talk about them and remember HIV is not infectious through social contact. Q Listen. Allow the person to express his or her feelings.

Renaldo's story