TAMPA, Fla. — Metro Inclusive Health Peer Advocate and Health Educator Paula Delgado draws on her own experience living with HIV when it comes to offering help and hope to clients who've been diagnosed with the virus. She's also shared her story publicly, appearing on the cover of literature for the A Positive Life initiative, which aims to educate and support those living with HIV. It's something she said she never could've imagined doing when she was first diagnosed years ago.
“I never thought I’d be here,” Delgado said. “I got my license one year, and I told my sister, ‘Look - I’ll expire before my license will.’ Because you didn’t live long, you know?”
Delgado said at the time, treatment options weren’t what they are today.
“Before they really had medication, that was strictly for HIV, they gave you medications for infections and different things that were going on in your body. So, I was on 32 pills a day,” said Delgado.
That number eventually decreased to 27 pills a day, then 23, then 20. Today, Delgado said she takes one pill a day to manage her HIV and the virus is undetectable in her system.
“I enjoy life. I’m happy to be here. So I enjoy, I absorb every single second of every day,” she said.
That includes a passion for her work at Metro Inclusive Health. Delgado said she turned the shock that followed her diagnosis into action, volunteering with advocacy organizations, including MIH. That led to her job. She said much of her day is spent making calls to clients, checking in to see if they’re taking their medication and keeping their doctor’s appointments. She said her HIV-positive status has helped her connect with those she’s trying to help.
“I can engage them by sharing my story with them,” said Delgado. “A lot of times, they would call me in for a newly diagnosed client who was completely broken at the moment. I would tell them, ‘Look at me. Look at me.’ And I would tell them real quick, ‘I’ve been positive for a long time, and I’m okay and things are going to be alright and we’ve got you.’”
According to AIDSVu, there were 13,746 people living with HIV in the Tampa MSA, which includes Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas Counties, in 2020. More than 400 were newly diagnosed that year. Delgado said the biggest challenges to fighting HIV/AIDS in Tampa Bay is the stigma that surrounds the virus, especially in Black and Brown communities, and educating at-risk communities.
“There’s so much stigma that nobody wants to talk about it,” Delgado said.
She encourages anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to HIV to get tested and urges those who may have tested positive but haven’t begun treatment to do so, saying it could be lifesaving. Delgado said she has no plans to stop doing the work necessary to help those who do come forward to seek resources.
“This is what I’m going to do until it doesn’t need to be done anymore,” she said.