Kim Smith did not want to be the walking poster child for HIV and AIDS.
Even so, it is not uncommon for complete strangers to recognize her on the street and embrace her not just in the Salt Lake Valley but even as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C.
Smith agreed to share the most difficult part of her life with the world with the production of "The Smith Family." Filmed by Tasha Oldham and premiered on PBS, this documentary zeroes in on the Smiths as they cope with the impact of HIV and AIDS within their family.
In 1987, on their ninth wedding anniversary, Kim learned her husband, Steven, had engaged in sex with a number of men. The punches didn't stop there. Two years later, Kim would learn that she was HIV positive.
"It was like being hit on the head with a crowbar," she said. And ultimately, if she was positive, so was Steve. Anonymous testing confirmed what they already knew.
Kim and Steven were determined to keep their family together. They were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While their religion played a large role in their decision, Kim said they truly loved one another. In sickness and in health.
"We shared a love of so many things," she said. "We just couldn't love each other in a physical way the way we loved each other in an emotional way."
When Steven became seriously ill with AIDS, Kim used her medical background to nurse him herself, so that he could remain at home. But she wanted her two young sons to have a normal life, so she still drove them to ball practice and did all the other things that mothers do. And through it all, she was going through treatments of her own treatments that left her feeling weak and nauseous. She coped by breaking her life down into five-minute increments.
"There was so much to think about that sometimes I just didn't think," Kim said.
As AIDS destroyed his body, Kim said her husband carried a certain heaviness, knowing he had passed the potential for the full-blown disease on to her.
"He suffered more than I know," she said. "He would sometimes ask me, 'Who is going to do this for you?"'
In 2000, Steven passed away within a week after their son Tony entered the Missionary Training Center in preparation for serving a church mission.
"For a year after, I just wandered around ... I would sleep hours and days away," she said.
Through a lot of tears and a little laughter, Kim shared her story again this week at a roundtable discussion held at University Hospital. Her presentation was offered to a group of students seeking master's degrees in public health. Despite increases in public awareness, the number of HIV diagnoses continues to rise.
There were 32 percent more diagnoses of HIV in Utah during the first quarter of this year, compared to the same time period last year. In 2007, the state listed 91 cases. State health officials recently reported that many people have become complacent about protecting themselves from this disease.
Even though her story gives health professionals an intimate, personal view of what HIV and AIDS can do to a family's life, Kim's story is as much about life lessons as it about an incurable disease. She learned that service to others made her own burdens seem not so bad, although she insists it is easier to be the "do-er" than the "done-for."
One lesson she still struggles with is the ability to let go of judgments and opinions, and at times it makes her angry.
"For all the times I have said 'I will never ... ' and then I do, and then I remember, and I self-correct," she said.
That isn't to say Kim, who has never developed AIDS, has never been angry about the trials she was given in her life. She joked about being able to tell the class how important it is to have a good attitude but admitted her own isn't always so good.
Kim believes it was a gift to her to have the ability to respond to Steven's confession with compassion. When he first told her about being sexually abused as a teen and his struggle with same-sex attraction afterward, Kim said she was heartbroken for him because this was the first time in his life he had been able to let that anguish out.
"I am grateful I didn't let anger take over my reaction," she said. "When you are angry, all logic flies out the window you do and say things you can never, ever take back."
She learned that human nature was not as deranged as she thought it was. Over the years, she and Steven slowly began to tell friends and family what they were facing. And one by one, they found acceptance at every turn."They didn't let their lack of understanding or agreement get in the way of love," she said. "You can love without understanding."
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