by Catherine Wyatt-Morley My husband and I sat impatiently in the crowded waiting room of my OBGYN. It was to be a follow up visit after a hysterectomy and reconstructive surgery I had in March. But at 2:00 pm on April 12, 1994 my life changed forever. On that day my doctor told my husband and I that I had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus - the virus that causes AIDS. I was devastated, scared, confused and felt like someone had just taken my life. Fear gripped me, tears flooded my face, running like water from a spout. My body shook. "I'm married and have been faithful," I said, as I looked at my husband whose eyes filled with tears. My thoughts turned to my children. Instinctively, I was afraid for my babies. I could hear words coming from the doctors mouth, but they seemed to dissipate into thin air. The room fell silent, then an unspoken stare between my husband and me was broken by his words. “It seems logical that I be tested”. The doctor agreed and immediately scheduled his test for the same day. Again, words were exchanged between them but like massive boulders they crashed heavy onto the floor. The air became thick and I found it difficult to breathe. The office began to spin. I heard the doctor say, “ I’m sorry Catherine.” My husband took my arm and stood me up. My knees weak, I felt as if I were delivered into the invisible hands of hell. The world seemed somehow different. “HIV, HIV, oh my God, HIV,” I kept saying. My husband placed me in the front seat of the car and walked slowly to the emergency entrance of the hospital where they were waiting for him. As he left my view, alone I began to cry. Bloodcurdling wails filled the car. I screamed until my face turned red and my body shook. I yelled until I lost my voice. Doubled over in pain from the surgery I curled up in a ball. Then I cried some more. As I held my stomach I repeated “My babies, what about my babies?” My husband returned to the car and we drove home in silence. Ten days later the foundation of my life was again ripped away by his HIV positive diagnosis. Immediately he was put on AZT.A month passed, I went to see the medical director where I was employed taking documentation that verified my medical condition and requested his assistance. He offered no help. “Go home get your will made out, find a place for your kids to live, you are going to die.” His cruel words cut through me. Three days later I got a call. The male voice on the other end of the telephone said, “Don’t think about comin’ back to work, nobody wants you here.” The caller hung up. I stood looking at the phone wondering who it was on the other end and what he knew. I never told my husband. Eventually I lost my job and with it my medical insurance, 401k and retirement benefits.A few weeks later I went to my Church seeking solace. After sharing my anguish of diagnosis and my experience with my employer, he didn't have much to say. He listened unmoved, offering nothing, not even a prayer. I desperately wanted prayer but got nothing. I was told I couldn’t come back to church because “We can’t have that here. What will the other parishers say? You can’t take Communion with them”. Time passed, the children were confused, my husband plummeted head first into drinking withdrawing from fatherhood and our marriage while my thoughts turned to suicide. No job, No friends, No church, No hope. Death seemed the only way I could take control of HIV before HIV took control of me. As I watched my husband sink rapidly into his own terror, my hells fire intensified. Screaming until I had no voice. I grieved my life. There was no one there willing to help. No one could help! Only me, alone. Oh God, my children. Who would raise my babies? No one molds a child like their mother. In a matter of months I had lost my job, my marriage, my friends and my church. My husband was lost in the bottom of a vodka bottle. Without his security I was alone in the silence of confusion and despair facing the death sentence the doctor had given me.As I watched my husband I became angry. I became empowered by my anger. I became a pissed off black woman. Determination consumed me. I refused to take on the actions of my husband, rejecting others cruel words of hatred that haunted my every waking moment. I had to do something with all of the rejection, isolation, humiliation and loss. God help me, there was so much loss.Instead of death, I made the decision to choose life. I chose life for my children. I chose life for me. I chose life for the voiceless. I decided in my midnight hour to make my life matter, to make a difference for other women who were suffering in silence. With whatever time I had left above ground I was determined to make as big a foot print as possible.Women On Maintaining Education and Nutrition, a 501(c) 3 non-profit was born in my Brentwood home. With my children by my side, W.O.M.E.N. became the central focus of my work on earth. Today W.O.M.E.N. is the only HIV focused community based agency found, organized and administered by a three time published author and African American mother living with AIDS in the state of Tennessee.This year marks 19 years since my diagnosis and the birth of W.O.M.E.N. Out of the mist of uncertainty, certainly there has been many challenges over the years. In 2009 I was hospitalized eight days with yet another Opportunistic Infection (OI). Unmistakably AIDS at its best. I experienced parts of AIDS I had not known. Often I’ve heard, “you don’t look like you have HIV.” Trust me, I look like AIDS! It never leaves me. Many lives have been lost to AIDS related illness while the stigma deepened its hold and rates of infection skyrocket.The color of HIV/AIDS has become African American/Black/Mocha/Chocolate/Tan and the gender of AIDS has disproportionately become female. HIV/AIDS has become me! It is problematic to me that black women comprise only 12 percent of the female population in the United States, yet we accounted for more than 64 percent of women living with HIV/AIDS. It is not only problematic, but troubling in that funding has not kept pace with the face of HIV/AIDS.Against this backdrop I recognized one solution. In almost two decades of giving my life to the service of others mentoring, counseling and most importantly listening to women and families rich and poor, educated and illiterate, homeless and living in million dollar mansions; I understood the need for a new course of action. That action is W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E.; a culturally sensitive; gender specific holistic structure which utilizes an educational platform built upon economic and sustainable health outcomes for infected women. In sharing this vision with thousands of other HIV positive women, our collective voice recommends the facilities effectiveness be intersected with a case management and behavioral research infrastructure integrated into holistic approaches to care. Having read about it on our web site, women from around the world inquire about the facility.Clearly, the divine plan for my life was not only the creation of W.O.M.E.N., but to exceed that by implementing this unique one of a kind gender-centered facility. Paying it forward is everyone’s responsibility!