HIV Testing Opens Doors, Disease Still A Problem in Alaska

Diane Timberlake says testing for HIV is a healthy choice. Photo courtesy of family.
Diane Timberlake says testing for HIV is a healthy choice. Photo courtesy of family.

About 15 percent of people who are infected with HIV don’t know their status. And the number of new cases in Alaska rose in 2014. Local organizations are trying to re-ignite awareness of the disease during National HIV Testing Week by offering free tests around the community. One woman spoke about how testing positive for HIV changed her life.

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Diane Timberlake is buxom and robust, clunky jewelry adorns her wrist, a gold cross shines from her necklace. But she didn’t look much like this seven years ago.

“I was very, very small,” she recalls. “You could look through me. I looked like a toothpick.”

She was serving time in a federal prison in California for selling drugs. She had no idea she was sick. While she was there, she took bible study classes and a drug rehab course. One day, she was called into an office to talk to a therapist.

“They called me in there and they told me [I was infected] and I just kind of flipped out because I couldn’t believe it.”

Health officials from Alaska had contacted the prison because one of her former sexual partners had tested positive for the disease. Timberlake says she didn’t know she was being tested until she was given the results. When she found out, she was in shock. Soon word got around the prison camp where she was living, and no one wanted to be near her.

“I mean, it was rough. They would spray out their showers, and scrub it down with bleach. They would scrub out the washer and dryer with bleach. Or if they really had a feather up their behind, they would turn around and throw all my clothes in the garbage. You know, things like that,” she describes matter-of-factly.

Timberlake says she received medical treatment, but she felt like she wasn’t worth anything. She left prison with a comment from a prison worker on constant replay in her head – she was going to die. But then she visited the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, or Four As.

“When I first came here…” She pauses, fingers near her mouth. “I was real scared. But then my case manager helped me through.”

Her case manager connected her to medical treatment, housing, and other resources. She realized she could live a normal life with the disease. She got re-married. And now she encourages others to know their status.

“I think it’s okay to get tested. It doesn’t mean you have it, you’re just getting tested. That’s like being responsible because what if you do get into a relationship or you’re doing drugs and stuff.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone from ages 15 to 65 get tested on a regular basis. Jamez Terry with the 4As says that only younger gay and bisexual men tend to get regular tests – most of the population doesn’t even think about it.

“I sometimes talk about what I do for work and people will say ‘Oh, is HIV still a problem?’ They stopped hearing about it and thought it went away. And it hasn’t. Rates of infection haven’t gone down since the mid-90s in this country.”

Terry says testing is helpful no matter what the result. “Whether people test positive or negative, it leads to steps they can take to maintain a healthier life after that.” Like receiving treatment, which can also drastically reduce transmission, or taking preventative steps.

For Timberlake, her status is now part of her identity and her life. “I’m not ashamed of having HIV. Okay, I’m not. I’m not surprised that I’ve lived as long as I have. I’m okay with where I’m at with it.”

National Testing Week runs through Saturday. Free rapid tests are always available from the 4As and other organizations in the state.

Special testing events in Anchorage this week include free tests and a raffle at Alaska Native Medical Center from 10 am to 2 pm on Friday, June 26. You can also be tested at the Listening Post at the Downtown Transit Center from noon to 4 pm on Saturday, June 27 and get chocolate and a free massage.