An American quilt

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    NEWTON-In a different time, women gathered together to tell stories as they sewed their quilts. Last week, women came together at Sussex County Community College with stories and a quilt of a different kind. Six women who are HIV positive talked about their disease in a panel discussion last Thursday, in a room lined with panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, on display at the college. The event was SCCC's recognition of World AIDS Day, this year with an emphasis on how HIV and AIDS are on the rise among women. The six local women on the panel, some accompanied by family members, told the audience of college students and visitors from middle and high schools that although they're among the lucky ones who respond to new drugs that hold the disease at bay, there is still no cure. "I always thought it couldn't happen to me," said Lori, who along with the other panelists was introduced to the audience by her first name only to maintain her anonymity. "I thought it happened in New York City and not to a small town girl like me," she said, adding that she attended Sussex-Wantage Middle School, where some 60 eighth-grade audience members came from. The panelists all said they're among those who are responding to new HIV drugs that keep them relatively healthy. However, they listed the drugs they have to take daily, many with side effects, and talked about the precautions they have to take and the discrimination they face. "I cannot go to my pool, I cannot go to my dentist, I've been kicked out of a hospital," said Joanne, a panelist who said she contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. The other five panelists contracted the virus from intravenous drug use or having unprotected sex. They had a warning for the young people in the audience. "Girls, demand that that gentleman across from you put a condom on," said Peggy, who said she contracted HIV at age 23 from having unprotected sex. She said she was a popular Catholic school student and cheerleader who thought AIDS was a disease of homosexual men. "It happens to anyone," she said. Danielle, a 25-year-old mother of two who found out five months ago she is HIV positive, had a similar message to the females in the audience. "Don't believe a guy when he says you're the only one," she said. When asked what she would have done differently, she said, "I would've listened to my mother. I would have looked out for myself instead of listening to men." Rita, a 56-year-old grandmother, said she would have never picked up a drug needle. "I stopped having fun the first or second time I picked up the needle," Rita said. Although she responds well to medication and her HIV has not yet led to AIDS, she now has asthma, high blood pressure, hepatitis C and diabetes, all conditions she says stem from HIV. The women's stories hit home for many of the young people in the audience. Caitlin Vogel of Sussex, an eighth-grader from Sussex-Wantage Middle School, said the movies in school about AIDS were no comparison to listening to real-life experiences. "What we see in the movies goes out of your head, but when we see you and hear your stories it's 100 percent better than watching a movie," Vogel told the panel. Kim Oliveiera, health teacher at the Sussex-Wantage school, said she tries to bring her class to the SCCC AIDS program every year. "It's what they need to hear," she said. The panel was brought together by Hope House's AIDS Center, a Catholic social service agency that provides services and counseling to HIV and AIDS patients through a satellite office in Newton. Madeline Corredor of Hope House said the agency is working to get the word out that although it's out of the media spotlight, AIDS is "still out there." "And the numbers are so high for females," she said. At the end of 2003, there were 34.7 million women and 2.1 million girls living with HIV or AIDS, she said. Four million more women have become infected since then, she added. Heidi Gregg of SCCC's Student Activities Department, which hosted the panel discussion and the quilt display, said the five quilt sections were brought through the national AIDS Memorial Quilt project, which sends 44,000 quilt panels on tour throughout the country. Each quilt square, a 3x6-foot rectangle that is the same size as a coffin, memorializes the life of a person lost to AIDS.