MADISON- Receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV helped to turn one Madison woman's life around.
At the time of her diagnosis 22 years ago, Cass Downing, 45, was a drug addict. She's now a Certified Nursing Assistant in Madison.
Downing said she never expected to hear at 29 years old that she had only a few months to a few years to live. When doing a check up with her doctor, the doctor would tell her how much of a miracle it was that she was still "so healthy" while using alcohol and drugs.
"He said 'you must have someone watching over you' to me a few times, and that stuck with me," Downing said. "I would tell myself that's not always going to be the case if you don't change the way you live."
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HIV attacks and destroys the infection-fighting T-cells of the immune system. Loss of T-cells makes it hard for the body to fight off infections and certain HIV-related cancers. With a weakened immune system, the body could be open to opportunistic infections.
Downing said her initial HIV diagnosis was devastating and terrifying.
"It was total depression, isolation, anxiety, fear, all of those kind of thoughts," she said.
At the time of her diagnosis, Downing was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from using drugs and wasn't noticing symptoms of the virus. However, she said the side effects from the medications caused numbness in her feet and tongue. Her mouth would get cold, and she also would get very sick. The only symptom she now experienes is fatigue.
Downing said she has gone from taking 16-18 pills a day to treat her HIV to now only taking three.
Now clean and sober for 17 years, Downing has used her struggles to empathize with patients. She knew from an early age that helping people was something she loved doing.
As someone who works in healthcare, Downing said HIV care has changed a lot. She has been "undetectable" for five years, meaning she still has the virus in her blood, but the amount is so small she's unable to transmit the virus onto others. This means the virus isn't showing up on blood tests due to the medicine she is taking.
"HIV is kind-of just another diagnosis that people are living with these days, which is good and bad at the same time, because people think 'oh, well, I'll be OK, because I'll just take medication,' but they don't realize everything that goes with it," Downing said.
Downing expects to live a full and healthy life, but her status is still on her mind on a daily basis. There are precautions she has to take when working with patients and she also thinks about all of the people who have died because of the virus.
"I miss them, and it puts a dose of humility into my head," Downing said. "I'm grateful to be where I'm at, and I always remember them."
When Downing comes down even with the common cold, she will feel anxious.
"I try to tell myself I'm healthy," Downing said. "I don't use drugs. I don't think drink. I don't put myself in bad situations. I think positive, not HIV positive."
Downing stresses that HIV is a disease that can affect anyone of any gender or sexuality. As a transgender woman with the virus, she has faced much discrimination.
While previously working at a hospital, Downing would often hear medical providers make comments about making sure to wear gloves because of people's HIV status. With universal precautions, medical providers should be putting on gloves either way. Downing feels as though specifically pointing out a person's status is inappropriate.
Downing also has faced discrimination in the dating scene. She once was dating a man who broke up with her just days after Downing received her positive HIV diagnosis.
"I did have someone tell me they didn't want to date me because they didn't want to die, which was hard," Downing said.
Although she believes people have a right to decide whether or not to date someone who's HIV positive, Downing said that it was something she had to work hard to accept, especially at a time when her family was still working through accepting her as a transgender woman with HIV. Downing is now very close with her family, and they even support her performances as a drag queen. Downing also is in a committed relationship.
"As someone living with HIV, I have an obligation to not only keep myself safe, but others," Downing said. "It's just easier to be open about my status for that purpose as well as helping others to know they're not alone and that they'll be OK and that they have someone who will love and support them and understand what they're going through, because empathy is an important spiritual principle."
Downing has been entertaining in Madison and the surrounding areas for 28 years. What started as a hobby has really become a second job, with her weekends filled with obligations and performances.
"I kind-of found my way through the drag community," Downing said. "I love entertaining, because who doesn't love a little attention, or a lot, but I found my womanhood through doing drag as well."
She also won numerous titles as an entertainer, including Miss Gay Madison when she was 21, Wisconsin Entertainer of the Year, and most recently she became the 2017 National Entertainer of the Year Femme, hosted by the SLS Pride Foundation. This category is open to female-identified drag queens.
Downing does what she can for HIV awareness, including hosting Bingo nights for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin for the past 10 years and working with the Beloit-based LGBT nonprofit Yellow Brick Road with their programming.
"I've been given a lot of love and support through my life's trials and tribulations," Downing said. "My goal in life is to continue giving back to people, because as they say in recovery, you want to keep what you have by giving it away."