A scary diagnosis, and a whole new calling

William Francis was stunned when he received his HIV diagnosis six years ago.

“I drove around [Atlanta Interstate] 285, thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ ’’ he says now. “I thought I was going to die.”

Francis, 42 at the time, went to his regular Bible study and told other participants about his condition. “They pulled back from me,’’ he says. “I had no one else to turn to.”

“You see a lot of stigma, fear and discrimination attached to HIV,’’ Francis says.

But soon Francis, who lives in Stone Mountain, began what he calls his mission to break that stigma and educate people about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Metro Atlanta has a heavy HIV burden. Atlanta is No. 5 among U.S. metro areas for new diagnoses of the virus, and Georgia is a leading state for those new infections.

The combined problems of poverty and lack of access to health care in Atlanta are driving forces behind the HIV epidemic, and they disproportionately affect the black community in Atlanta. While medical breakthroughs have slashed the death rate from AIDS and allowed many people with HIV to live normal lives, those who have the virus are at serious risk if they don’t take action.

Francis says he was infected through sex with a woman. After his diagnosis, he contacted two women with whom he’d had sex in his past. The second woman he called got tested and discovered that she was HIV-positive. “She was hysterical,’’ he says.

Francis began taking prescription drugs to lower his viral load. “It’s so important that if you do come up HIV-positive, you get into care immediately.”

Helping the afflicted

Eventually he was asked to address the congregation about HIV at another African-American church in Atlanta.

The minister there began coaching him, telling him he had “a destiny that God gave you.”

A year ago, Francis was ordained a minister, and he now works at the AFIA Center in Atlanta. “We focus on poverty, homelessness, HIV, sex trafficking.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuOCPd6m77Q [/youtube] Now, he says, “I’m healthier than I’ve probably ever been.”

Before his diagnosis, Francis recalls, “I was living a day-to-day life. HIV really changed that.”

He makes public speaking appearances to educate people about the disease. “I thought it was important to get my story out there. I want to help people.”

Francis was on a local radio program when he met a woman whom he eventually began dating.

“She knew I was HIV-positive,’’ he says. “She’s very aware of how to protect herself. She went to her doctor, and we came up with a plan.’’

The two got married a year ago.

“It’s a very normal marriage and a normal life,” he says.

For more information about HIV, including supporting loved ones living with the disease, go to georgia.greaterthan.org