When Sheldon Bowman found out he had Hepatitis C and HIV in 2014, he thought he was a dead man walking.
“That’s the initial thought. But after time progressed, I discoveredthere was help, there were people who cared, and I could go on functioning normally — but just with a blood-borne infection,” he said.
Bowman now acts as a peer to others on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation who are on their own journey to overcome drug abuse and disease.
He is also one of about 130 delegates at a two-day HIV knowledge exchange forum that began Monday in Saskatoon. The eventfocuses on the knowledge and experiences of First Nationsgroups in developing a Know Your Status program.
Communities will receive support in assessing theirreadiness, planning and implementation of HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infection education, harm reduction, testing, and clinical management. The goal is to reach the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target — that90 per cent of people with HIV know their status, 90 per cent of those patients receive anti-viral drugs, and 90 per cent have repressed viral loads so infection doesn’t spread.
Saskatchewan’srate of new HIV cases is twice the national average. Aboriginal people represented 71 per cent of new diagnoses in 2014.However, Ahtahkakoop met the 90-90-90 target a year and a half ago — an achievement Chief Larry Ahenakew said he didn’t believe at first.
Key to the effort was convincing people their health status would remain confidential, he said, adding people are now less afraid of HIV and Hepatitis since the community started its campaign.
“Back then, even touching people, coughing on people, they were afraid. We had to educate people like that.”
Carol Lafond, health director at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, said that community has been looking at a drug and alcohol strategy to address various issues, includingHIV.
This week’s forum validateswhat the community is already doing and brings awareness to the problem, she said.
“You see the audience there is young and old, and they have influence in their families, their communities.”
Bowman had a seemingly happy life growing up. He had good marks in school, played hockey and was a star track athlete. People didn’t see that he masked the pain of his mother’s death with painkillers, he said.
“On the outside you have this shiny, happy-go-lucky guy, but deep down inside I was troubled and truly needed help.”
He travelled to major cities across North America, working in construction, but his drug use spiralled, leading to his 2014 diagnoses.
Bowman said he doesn’t think he’d be aroundtoday without help from theAhtahkakoop health centre.He’s now cured of Hepatitis C and takes medication to manage his HIV.
“It slowly worked its way to the point where I felt, well, I’m not dead yet. You can live and function properly with HIV or a blood borne infection,” he said.
He has two children of his own and figured that since he wants to be a positive role model for them, he could do the same for others, he added.
Bowman said he wants people to be safe and come to him before they do anything drastic — such as taking their own lives — so he can tell them they’renot alone. There are no words to describe how it feels to help others, he said.
“You may save one life or influenceone life, but that’s one life that (could) possibly be gone, and I’m just happy to be able to help aboriginals.”
Author: Jonathan Charlton