A New Beginning

Heather McLean felt like she was handed a death sentence when she was diagnosed with HIV. Instead, it was the catalyst she needed to turn her life around.

While waiting in jail to be sentenced for multiple convictions on breaches of probation, shoplifting and public intoxication, Heather McLean got some bad news that changed her life.

"The nurse came in and I could tell by the unhappy look she had on her face that it wasn't good news," McLean said.

She was HIV positive.

As an aboriginal, McLean is 3.6 times more likely to contract HIV in her lifetime compared to a non-aboriginal in Canada, according to the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE).

"The numbers are higher for First Nations folks that identify with HIV compared to where they sit in the greater population of Canada," said Kira Haug, health navigator and community health educator with the ASK Wellness Centre in Kamloops.

"Aboriginal people comprise 14.1 per cent of Canada's HIV population, even though they comprise only about four per cent of the general population," she said. "Those are staggering numbers."

Haug cites poverty, drug addiction, sexual exploitation, violence, racism, discrimination and poor access to
health care as some reasons for such high HIV rates among aboriginal women.

Rather than being a death sentence, HIV was the catalyst to turn McLean's life around. The 51-year-old Kamloops resident tested positive for HIV in 1994 when she was 34 years old.

McLean spent 32 years of her life in a whirlwind of alcohol, cocaine, prostitution and street life before slowing down and getting clean after testing positive for HIV.

"If I hadn't have got it, I wouldn't have slowed down," she said.

"HIV saved my life."

Born with fetal-alcohol syndrome and adopted soon after birth, McLean was predisposed to addiction from the beginning.

Alcohol was easily accessible. McLean's adopted parents were heavy drinkers and it didn't take long before she picked up the habit.
"I was always drunk," she said. "I just started drinking when I was nine or 10.

"It was just an everyday, normal thing, so I thought it was normal."

A combination of peer pressure and an eagerness to fit into an older crowd fortified the start of a long addiction to booze and cocaine.

Those dependencies led her into prostitution at age nine to help finance her drinking and drug habits, McLean said.

She grew up in Victoria, but at 19 moved to Vancouver where her addictions accelerated.

McLean assumed she contracted HIV from her boyfriend at the time either through sharing needles or engaging in unprotected sex.

While she was careful about not sharing needles with other people, she had trouble preventing her boyfriend from stealing hers.

"He was always stealing my needle because it still had dope in it," McLean said. "He used mine and put it back in my spot. Sneaky bugger."

Aboriginal people are disproportionately affected not only by HIV, but by injection drug use (IDU).

Among new cases of HIV infection in aboriginal people, 66 per cent were from IDU, while in non-aboriginals only 17 per cent of new infections were attributable to IDU in 2008, according to CATIE.

For about a year after finding out she tested positive, McLean sank into a deep depression and continued to drink, do drugs and hang around the streets.

"I kind of gave up," she said. "I thought, 'If I die, I die. If I don't, I don't.' "

Finally, fed up with her boyfriend cheating on her and the lifestyle she was leading, McLean moved to Kamloops in 1995 in an attempt to escape the pressure to use.

"I saw the light one day," McLean said. "I was tired of doing all the coke and I was just getting sicker.

"I wouldn't be alive if I was still in Vancouver."

Although McLean is among the 18 per cent of aboriginals with HIV in B.C., her story is not necessarily typical of the aboriginal population.

"Heather's story is really, really extreme," Haug said. "I don't believe that is the ordinary story of an aboriginal woman."

EDUCATION MINIMAL

When McLean was diagnosed with HIV, education about the virus was minimal in most areas. The lack of knowledge about the virus spurred stigma about HIV/AIDS.

"One in four Canadians demonstrated a low level of comfort with HIV/AIDS," according to an attitudinal survey of Canadians in 2003 by EKOS Research Associates Inc.

"Back then I lost friends," McLean said. "As soon as I told them, they were off and running. Back then, it was like a, 'Ew! I don't want to touch you,' sort of thing."

Stigma and discrimination still affect people with HIV, but McLean believes perceptions of the virus have changed for the better, in part due to more education surrounding HIV.

"It's a little easier now who you tell because it's more acceptable," she said.

As a way of helping break the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, McLean has spoken numerous times to fellow aboriginal people of all ages at the Dead Man's Creek reserve outside of Kamloops.

The ASK Wellness Centre in Kamloops offers educational sessions and workshops to people living on reserves, off-reserve groups that identify as aboriginal, and schools in the Kamloops area.

Educational services are offered free upon request only.

HIV education can benefit the aboriginal community, particularly aboriginal women who represent "49 per cent of all positive HIV test reports compared to 21 per cent among other ethnicities," according to CATIE.

"There is a stigma that surrounds HIV in aboriginal communities, making it harder for women to learn about it, get tested for it, to receive support, or to even improve their knowledge," Haug said.

Transmission rates are in an overall decline across the country, "except for within the First Nations community where it is increasing," she said.

"That is directly linked to marginalization, poverty, sexual exploitation, addiction, violence, discrimination and inequity of service," she said.

By providing information on HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, STDs, STIs, drug use and safe sex, Haug aims to help people make healthy decisions the next time they are in a high-risk situation.

"I think whenever you're sharing information, there is a positive impact," she said.

While HIV disproportionately affects aboriginal people in Canada, the virus is not limited to one demographic.

"The numbers do indicate that aboriginal folks are at higher risk and aboriginal women are at even higher risk on that spectrum, but anyone that is engaging in high-risk activity is at risk (to contract HIV)," Haug said.

"It doesn't matter if you're purple, green or blue."

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