David: Acting on HIV/AIDS
“I live.” That is the answer David Soomarie has for anyone who asks him how he has been coping with HIV/AIDS every day, for the past 16 years.
“There’s nothing else I see myself doing,” he says. “I take my meds, check my health regularly, and live life as normally as the next person.”
Now, at first glance, one would not assume a mild-mannered individual like Soomarie would be responsible for quite a major stake in Trinidad and Tobago’s fight against HIV/AIDS. Recently appointed as the Coordinator of local NGO Community Action Resource (CARe), he invests nearly all his time and energy into making CARe an influential entity a “well-oiled machine”, as he puts it.
His path with HIV/AIDS began when he found out he had the disease through a medical exam for an insurance policy.
“I was told bluntly, ‘You have AIDS. Go see your doctor’,” he recalls. “My world was shattered. I had no clue what HIV was, or if there was any way to treat it, both physiologically and psychologically.”
‘I was told bluntly, “You have AIDS. Go see your doctor”‘
In the aftermath, he buried the thought. Whenever he fell ill, he would merely treat the symptoms and move on normally, as if nothing was wrong.
A few years later, while working on a campaign with the YMCA, the notion of having HIV crossed his path again. Through the YMCA, he was introduced to the few NGOs involved in HIV/AIDS at the time, and he took a special interest in CARe. Seeing the members of CARe, all HIV-positive people, living normally, compelled him to finally admit he was HIV-positive himself.
“I was genuinely surprised; to me HIV was a death sentence.”
Then reality stepped in further.
“One day, I was driving home from CARe’s office, and the next thing I knew, I was on a hospital bed being told I had a seizure,” explains the 36-year-old. “My CD4 count, or quantity of immunity was 45, meaning I was near death.”
Two months subsequent to this, Soomarie was at home, unable to work, with his father taking care of him. He had lost a great amount of weight, was coughing all the time, and was overcome with fatigue.
“My day basically involved being woken up every two hours to take a cocktail of drugs, and having my father do everything for me, because I couldn’t do anything for myself,” he recalls. “During that time, I was angry – angry with myself, with the world, with the disease. I was angry with the fact I contracted HIV and I thought it was my fault, since I had no idea who and where I got it from. Depression kicked in when I began questioning why I ended up living with this disease, and was essentially in a state I considered alive, but not living anymore.”
‘I thought it was my fault, since I had no idea who and where I got it from’
Eventually, Soomarie recovered, and joined the ranks of CARe, as a member. He resumed his career in advertising, and was fairly open about his status. Management at his firm was also sensitive to the disease – given that the National AIDS Coordinating Committee was one of their major clients. Support came in the form of friends, who ensured he made it to medical appointments, and his father, especially, who became more instrumental in his life.
Now, 16 years later, Soomarie’s CD4 count is 594 and the virus is undetectable in his body, thanks to anti-retroviral treatment (a fully healthy person’s CD4 count is in the range of 1500 to 1700, but anything over 250 is considered healthy). He has also left the world of advertising, and is working full-time at CARe.
“From then to now, Trinidad has made many strides in terms of battling the epidemic,” Soomarie states. “Anti-retroviral treatment is free; something not many countries can boast about. The Ministry of Labour has its National Policy on HIV/AIDS in the Workplace. But we still have a lot of work to do. The distribution of ARV treatment should be decentralised; they should be accessible at more health facilities, not only at Port of Spain, San Fernando, Mount Hope and Scarborough. And we still don’t know how effective the labour policy will be, in terms of enforcing it not only in the public sector but the private sector as well. The authorities also have a huge responsibility to ensure their healthcare institutions have modern equipment and the best service possible – efficient pre- and post-counselling services and most of all, confidentiality.”
‘There are those of us still holding onto the misconception that HIV is a gay disease, that those infected look a certain way, or it only happens to certain people’
His opinion on the work to be done, however, is not restricted to the Government. He believes people are more accepting, but there are rumours and misconceptions that are widely rampant. On one occasion, while speaking to students in Valencia, he was questioned as to whether or not mosquitoes are capable of spreading HIV, because there was a mosquito problem in the area. He then reminded them the “H” in HIV meant “human”; therefore, mosquitoes cannot and will not contract or be involved in the spread of the disease.
“There are those of us still holding onto the misconception that HIV is a gay disease, that those infected look a certain way, or it only happens to certain people,” he says. “The onus is not on the Government alone to get the word out. The information is out there for us to access, and in some cases we are receiving it, but in order to change our environment, we must take the first step by changing our attitude and mindset towards the situation.”
And that is where he sees his role in CARe coming in. The organisation, established in 1988, began as a support group comprising young, HIV-positive people. Today, Soomarie describes the membership as more diverse – people from all walks of life, of all races, from early 20s to about late 50s, some of whom are HIV-negative. The organisation itself has also grown from it support group days, becoming an entity, having made influential contributions to initiatives such as the National Policy on HIV/AIDS in the Workplace, and the National AIDS Strategic Response, as well as having representation on state boards such as the National AIDS Coordinating Committee.
“As the new coordinator, I think my greatest challenge is helping members, both current and prospective, realise they are stakeholders in CARe, which means by virtue they are stakeholders in every board or group in which CARe has influence,” he adds. “The time for being complacent and irresponsible is over. We, as in all members of society, have to become more responsive and responsible partners in the fight against the disease, so the end of stigma and discrimination begins with us, on a personal level.”
Soomarie’s major plan, at the helm of CARe, is to have a greater presence in the national arena, where they hope to reach the masses.
“We’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just rolling it down a different path,” he explains. “We want to be shining examples in the wider community, showing the people that having HIV or AIDS doesn’t mean death, educating those who don’t have all the facts, fighting the stigma and misconceptions, and giving support to those who need it. Then and only then will we be able to move forward, and, hopefully, end the hold the disease has on Trinidad and Tobago.”
The State of HIV/AIDS in Trinidad and Tobago
The following is a summarised version of a report on the state of HIV/AIDS in Trinidad and Tobago, compiled by Professor Courtenay Bartholomew, Professor of Medicine at the University of the West Indies and founder of the Medical Research Centre (MRC).
Author bio: Joshua Ramirez Wharwood is a Communications major at the University of the West Indies. Whenever he’s not feeding his addiction to Skittles and Coca Cola, he immerses himself in all things digital.
Photography by Mark Lyndersay.