Thursday, March 28, 2013

Green lights and real talk.

The Grady Ponce de Leon Center, devoted to the care of patients affected by HIV

Give me the green light
give me just one night
I'm ready to go right now
I'm ready to go right now

~ John Legend

A girl kept patting the side of her head mindlessly. She was talking to a girl beside her who didn't seemed to be bothered at all by the head-smacking or the hyper-exaggerated way she chewed her bubble gum during their conversation. Admittedly, I'd seen the Beyonce weave-pat a million times before. It didn't bother me much, either.

One boy was leaning over his folded elbows on the table. He looked two parts sleepy, one part bored. The next three kids were hunched down in their chairs staring intently at their smart phones and texting. I also saw smatterings of others with respectful, quiet eyes waiting for us to get started. Eventually, the ambient noise of high school chatter died down and we did.

It was simple enough. A panel of patients and a couple of doctors charged with discussing the reality of HIV and AIDS to a roomful of tenth graders over complimentary burritos on a weekday evening. How hard could that be?

I was there sitting in that row of chairs along with my friend and fellow Grady doctor, Wendy A. We said a few words about our experiences caring for patients affected by HIV and AIDS. But the patients who joined us? They were the ones who really took those kids to school.

And us, too.

Most of the patients there were young and close enough in age to those students to hold their attention. One of the patients, however, was a forty-something, like Wendy and me. Although she was the least likely to run into those high-schoolers at a dance club, something about her wisdom and her raw honesty grabbed us all. Not even two minutes into that woman speaking, I noticed that the girl with the Beyonce weave-pat was sitting completely still. Her hands were frozen in deference and her eyes wide like saucers. Hold up. This woman was smart and beautiful. Her partners were straight men and she wasn't on drugs. What was she doing with HIV?

They spoke of the moment they found out. One caught off guard at a "Hey, Get Tested!" day being held on the side of what was supposed to be a mundane community event. Another called up on the phone and told matter-of-factly, "Oh yeah, something came back positive." They also shared their truths about breaking the news to family. Some were supported from the start. Others? Not so much. And some? They still hadn't yet found the words to bring to their loved ones so technically, that part was still a work in progress.


Something about hearing those patients' perspectives and realities was spiritual for me. They described these evolutions and how this part of their lives forced them to grow up faster than, perhaps, they'd even wanted to.

And what I will say is this:  By the time they all finished speaking, all smart phones were put down and all milquetoast body language melted away. Hands came together in thunderous applause. And all of it was really, really good.

Just as the group started to dissipate, I saw that head-patting girl standing a few feet away from me. She'd spit out her giant wad of gum before gently approaching that woman patient who'd spoken so eloquently.

"I'm not gon' forget what you said," that student said softly.

"Baby, I just don't wish this on nobody. So you got to protect yourself, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I mean that. This disease don't give a damn about whether you black or white or rich or poor. It don't care if you cute or smart or how bright your future is. It don't care. It could come for anybody who give it a green light. You the only one who can give that green light, you know what I'm saying?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Them boys will tell you stuff to get you to do it. To give that green light. But it ain't worth it. It only take one time. Just one."

And by this time, that young girl with her sewn-in hair was flanked by three of her friends. They all stood their listening and. . . getting it. They were really and truly getting it.

At least, they looked like the were.

"Can I have . . . um .  . .a hug?" that young girl finally asked that patient.

And what happened next, warmed my heart in the deepest places. It erupted into a chain reaction of high school students hugging our patients. Those hugs were tight, genuine, and meaningful. Lines were crossed, barriers torn down and truths embraced right along with arms and shoulders.

I was so, so glad to be there to witness that. So glad.

"I ain't a disease. I'm a person."

That was one of the final things spoken by one of those patients. I stuck those words on post it notes in my head and in my heart so I wouldn't forget it.


Happy Thursday.

 Now playing on my mental iPod. . . John Legend singing "Give me the Green Light."

And, of course, Beyonce singing "Get me bodied" (which I call the "Pat yo' weave, ladies" song. Every time I hear this, I do every one of these moves at the end, I just want y'all to know. . . . .no exaggeration.)


  1. Now THAT is education! Beautiful.

  2. I am in tears. Beautiful story. And these kids...they truly got it.

  3. Lives were surely changed. Thank you for being a witness.
    Love,Coach B

  4. At Shawn Barton's 40th birthday back yard day party, the DJ played Get me Bodied. Shawn & one of her friends spontaneously did the whole end sequence. It was too much fun! I can't hear that song without thinking about it.

  5. I was an AIDS counselor/volunteer for many years back in the day, before there were drugs powerful enough to decrease viral load to "undetectable" levels. And the message I came away with after I met a Black woman that contracted the disease while married was that outside of procreating, always using condoms seemed like a pretty good idea.

  6. Loved the Beyonce video (and your post). I love Beyonce and her fit and womanly figure. She is a great singer, but also an athlete and I sat in anticipation of a wardrobe with that top, but I guess she had her bosoms taped in tight.

  7. This was quite moving to read and I can only imagine what it was like to be there in person. "I am a person, not a disease." I will remember that. S. Jo

  8. The Pipeline HIV panel has always been my favorite experience. The first time I listened to these patients tell their story and watched our normally chatty high school students sit in silence....I was in awe.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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