One Richmonder’s journey with HIV creates hope for the community
“I remember the exact moment,” said Rodney Lofton, 46. “It was December 6th at 2:58 pm. I was still jetlagged from my flight after getting to New York and couldn’t process it. I immediately thought I was going to die.”
Lofton was 25 years old. He didn’t believe it at first, but reality came down hard. He told his cousin just before coming home for the holidays, as well as his mom.
“I was lucky,” said Lofton in a small, busy cafe while he sipped his coffee. “She did a lot of research and said ‘we’ll get through this.’”
Lofton, like many other gay men in the early 90’s, had contracted HIV. But his illness didn’t slowed him down; in fact, he’s turned his energy outward and has been heavily involved in HIV/AIDS awareness and outreach since he tested positive back in 1993.
“From diagnosis, you’re told how to transition and how to prepare and process death,” said Lofton. “It can become difficult to remember how to live, hearing that. There’s no way to really appreciate life by always worrying about dying. So my new challenge was to help individuals live life to the fullest.”
Lofton was originally born in North Carolina but raised in Richmond. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Baltimore. He moved again when he was 16. He also spent a number of years in New York and New Mexico. Lofton moved back into Richmond in 1996, a few years after being diagnosed with HIV.
Since then he has become Executive Director of The Renewal Projects and has become heavily involved in the HIV/AIDS community here in Richmond.
The Renewal Projects is a local service organization providing safe and educational environments for those at risk or living with AIDS/HIV.
Lofton organizes a variety of transformation retreats to help patients overcome the challenges they face with their diagnosis through the organization. With these experiences, he has had a unique, first-hand look at the local HIV community.
“I’ve learned from experience how not to treat people,” said Lofton. His role as ED has shown him some of the darkest sides of HIV/AIDS. “I’ve even seen how the meds can have some drastic side effects on people. And we’re all fully aware now how HIV is transmitted, yet someone is still diagnosed every nine and a half minutes.
“There have been tough times,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed my experience so far.”
“Honestly, it’s a very quiet, middle sized community,” said Lofton about Richmond’s HIV/AIDS population. He said the disease is often considered a tender subject, and the lack of discourse about it leads to problems.
But once the topic is broached, Lofton said it becomes a lot easier for people to face. “Everyone is understanding and people have the medication they need,” said Lofton. “Most importantly, they have access to support groups and people who can understand and relate to similar situations.”
Richmond has an estimated 2300 people currently living with HIV, and has one of the highest new-infection rates in the nation, with about 70 new HIV cases every year. Statewide, Virginia has a little less than 27,000 people living with HIV and/or AIDS. The most affected groups, similar to national states, are black men who have sex with men. (stats via VDH)
“Even though I’m more on the administrative side, I have noticed the large increase of numbers here in Richmond,” said Lofton regarding the current HIV/AIDS population. “The cases are most prominent in black males, but we see patients of many various races and backgrounds.”
Lofton has been involved in outreach work since 1996. And while he’s only been at The Renewal Projects for a year now, the guidance he’s been able to give and take has impacted him.
“It’s a challenge for us here, because we know how HIV is prevented now, yet patients just keep coming in,” said Lofton. “While we have our retreats and programs, what really sticks out the most for me is the emotional aspect that working here brings. The Renewal Projects is sort of like a little gift to those in Richmond who have HIV/AIDS. It’s a chance for people to reconnect with themselves as well as engage with people in a completely understanding, judge-free environment.”
Lofton has partnered with many programs and focused on outreach design not just in Virginia but all over the country, in places like California and New Jersey, as well as internationally, in Switzerland and Russia. Lofton has even spoken at the United States Conference on AIDS. In comparison to the numerous places he’s visited, Richmond has come a long way.
“I mean, obviously there’s always more work to be done and room for improvement,” said Lofton. “But overall, there are a lot of really great organizations and forms of support that you can find here.”
Lofton pointed to The Fan Free Clinic, VCU and MCV among the many resources resources available to HIV positive people here in the region. The ability of an area like Richmond to be so open and helpful to those affected by HIV/AIDS says a lot about the public, according to Lofton.
“There’s the saying ‘he who conceals his disease cannot be expected to be cured.’ I think that’s true. There are great things going on in this community and people should not be discouraged to take advantage of opportunity.”
But not everything is perfect. Lofton said he would like to see a “one stop shop” for HIV/AIDS medical care in the future. Unfortunately, those living with the disease have to travel from building to building in the Richmond area to receive the care and benefits they need. This can be quite a challenge for those who don’t have easy access to transportation.
However, Lofton was excited to talk about the improvements he’s seen with science and medical care since his diagnosis in the early 90’s.
“Patients no longer have to take handfuls of pills,” said Lofton. “One single pill can handle it all, and lifespans have expanded tremendously. Also, people in this generation are far more aware, since there’s so much more information on the virus today. We’ve definitely come a long way.”
But with that in mind, Lofton also went on to talk about the lack of solemnity he sees in the upcoming generation.
“I think there’s a almost a sort of complacency around HIV infection now,” said Lofton. “Now people think ‘Oh, this can’t be so bad. All I have to do is take a pill every day.’ I worry a bit for the younger generation. This stuff is something that still needs to be [taught] and drilled, and should never be taken lightly. I think people sometimes overlook how serious it is to be tested positive, which is pretty alarming.”
As someone who has lived with HIV for some time, and lived during a time when the disease was at its peak in the mid 90’s, Lofton admits he’s lost a lot. Unable to take bad news at face value, Lofton has turned his loss into a source of inspiration to share his personal story with the world.
“There was never time that I was ostracized, but I fully know there are others that aren’t as fortunate as me,” said Lofton, who said his friends and family have stuck by his side as he’s lived with HIV. “It’s so important to realize that HIV is not a death sentence. You can live a full and happy life, as long as you take care of yourself by stepping into medical care. With all of that and a healthy support system, you can make it.”
As far as what’s next for Rodney Lofton, he says he still has his heart set on affecting the HIV/AIDS community through The Renewal Projects.
“I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time. I’m fully aware of how important it is to be doing the work that I’m involved in. I want to keep helping people, so I can safely say that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”
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