Tracey Dannemiller made no bones about it. To this day she regrets the one decision that she will have to carry with her all the days of her life; a decision that affects her loved ones both directly and indirectly.
Dannemiller is HIV positive, and hers is one story among several that made up the Faces of HIV project that visited the Winter Haven and Lakeland campuses of Polk State College. The project is part of a touring exhibit made possible here through the Polk County division of the Florida Department of Health: HIV/AIDS Education Outreach.
The exhibit contains oversized portraits of Florida residents — several from Polk County — who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, which are on the outside and inside of a tractor-trailer truck. The exhibit also contains 30-day journals kept by several of those portrayed, as well as a five-minute video that can be viewed on a tablet device.
The decision Dannemiller made nearly 29 years ago was to be unfaithful in her first marriage. Married right out of high school, she became involved with another man because of difficulties she and her first husband were having. What she did not know was the man with whom she became involved had AIDS.
“It is something I will always regret,” Dannemiller said about not being faithful during her first marriage.
After she divorced her first husband she married the man with whom she was having an affair. They had one child. Fortunately, that child was not born with HIV/AIDS. However, after that marriage ended — he eventually died from HIV/AIDS several years later — she remarried her first husband. They had three children. One was born with HIV/AIDS. That child is now 24 and battles her condition. Eventually she divorced her first husband another time. She is now married a fourth time. They have had two children, neither afflicted with the disease.
Despite her condition, she decided to turn the situation around and now serves as a foremost advocate educating people about the disease. She showed no reluctance telling her saga with visitors to the truck in which the traveling exhibit was housed and then turned it around, questioning visitors if they knew if they were infected.
All said no. She asked if they knew how it is transmitted. Most answered through unprotected sex or sharing needles. Then she sprung the trap door. The HIV/AIDS virus can be readily transmitted in other ways.
“Have you ever put a Band-Aid on someone without using a glove?” Every person she asked said they had. “Aha! You could have been infected.
“You don’t have to be in a high-risk situation,” said Dannemiller. “Sometimes people get infected, not by doing something wrong, but by trying to do good.”
As part of the exhibit, she urged everyone with whom she spoke to go to the second floor of the building that housed the cafeteria and go to a room where testing was taking place. There they could be tested one of three ways: taking a swab from the mouth, having a finger stuck (such as people who have diabetes do to measure blood sugar), or have blood drawn.
Dannemiller would later make a presentation in a room across from the cafeteria and speak at length, not only about her personal story, but on the greater issue: acceptance.
“It’s to raise awareness,” she said. “Those of us living with HIV, we’re really no different than anyone else.”