Two years ago, I was enjoying being a grandma, reflecting back on a successful career and looking forward to retirement. I was also looking for someone to share the remaining—and hopefully best—years of my life.
I met a very attractive, polite, physically fit Frenchman named Philippe Padieu. After a year together, the future looked promising. That is, until I heard from one of his former girlfriends that he was dating over nine women at the same time—including me!
This was hard to imagine, but his ex-girlfriend, Diane, mentioned that Philippe also had a prison record and may have given her an STD that was causing her to have early signs of cervical cancer. Philippe said she was just jealous, crazy and out to ruin his life. I decided to run a background check on Philippe, and it came out fine. Despite this, I grew increasingly wary, and a few months later I broke up with him. Shortly afterward, I asked my doctor to give me "every STD test available." What happened next is a nightmare that will haunt me every day for the rest of my life. I tested positive for HIV.
When I found out about my condition, I was in total denial, shock and panic. I thought: "Oh my God, I'm going to die a horrible death! No one must ever know!" I daydreamed about various ways to kill myself before anyone could find out. I was overcome with panic, obsessing about losing my job and insurance, wondering how I could possibly support my kids. I imagined people backing away and looking at me as if I was dirty. I wondered how I could possibly explain this to my family. How could this be true? How the hell could I have been SO STUPID?
Suicide was attractive but not an option. My family depended on me. I would just have to find a way to survive as long as possible. I worried about Philippe. I was sure he had infected me. I called him right away and urged him to get tested. I assured him, "We can get through this together." When he didn't follow up with me, I became suspicious. After contacting the health department and sharing my concerns, I provided them with the name of his former girlfriend, Diane. She rushed to be tested and was diagnosed with AIDS.
Diane and I were certain that Philippe must have known his condition but wasn't telling his partners. Using records from the cell phone Diane had given Philippe, she gave the health department a list of over 29 names. We followed up with the women to offer our support, and were horrified as the number of victims continued to grow. Many were already seriously ill or had developed AIDS.
I confronted Philippe, who finally admitted he was HIV positive. He was defensive and angry, claiming that no one would ever be able to prove that he was the common denominator. We learned that he continued to see women without telling them about his HIV status or using protection.
Diane and I decided to take action and filed a criminal complaint. We had taken a huge personal risk because the story was sure to be publicized and our identities would be exposed, but we were absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. Fortunately, the police provided us with pseudonyms. This did a lot to calm our fears and also helped give other women the confidence to come forward and join the case.
We worked with the police for over six months to provide evidence to prove that Philippe knew about his HIV status and intentionally infected his partners. Meanwhile, the health department tried to encourage Philippe to change his habits. Despite their efforts, he brazenly violated a cease and desist order. In July 2007, Philippe was arrested and charged with six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In the groundbreaking trial that followed, the state presented DNA evidence that Philippe was indeed the common denominator for all six victims. In May 2009, Philippe Padieu was found guilty and received a 45-year prison sentence.
A lot of media attention followed. It was surreal watching reporters try to track us down. Our earlier fears turned out to be well founded. Although we had put our reputations on the line to stop a predator, it was devastating to see that people on the Internet blogs were calling us "sluts," "one night stands" and "deserving whores." Due to interest in the case, however, we decided to work with the media to try and help educate people about HIV/AIDS.
What you can learn from our experience:
1. Nice-looking, polite gentlemen can indeed carry deadly diseases, and nice, old grandmas can get them.
2. Don't trust anyone.
3. BYOC: Bring your own condom.
4. INSIST on using the condom.
5. It is not uncommon for women to get HIV from their husbands or boyfriends who cheat or who are on the "down low" (having sex with other men).
6. Get tested every six months to one year if you are sexually active.
7. Ask your partner to also get tested.
8. Share your test results with each other.
It is a scary fact that over 200,000 people in the United States currently have HIV/AIDS and don't know it. The number of new infections is going up at an alarming rate for women of all ages, especially for women of color.
The fear and stigma associated with this diagnosis often keeps people from getting tested and obtaining treatment. As a result, the death rate goes up and more partners are at risk of infection.
Please get an HIV test. Getting a negative HIV test will give you peace of mind. Getting a positive result is a critical step to ensure you get treatment that can extend and possibly save your life. What you don't know CAN kill you.
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of complacency and lack of education about HIV/AIDS. I never imagined something like this could happen to me. Many people say HIV is not a death sentence and all you need is a pill a day to handle the disease. They are sadly misinformed. Thousands of people in the United States still die of AIDS every year. If you don't know your HIV status and don't get treatment, you will very likely face a horrible outcome. Without treatment, you may also infect your partners—and they, in turn, will infect others. Please know that AIDS is still deadly and it does not discriminate based on race, gender, age, culture or social position.
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, December 7, 2013