Florida Keys News
Friday, March 8, 2013
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Speaking out so others won't feel alone
52-year-old woman has lived openly with HIV since '88

One Key West woman doesn't hesitate in living openly with HIV, the virus that can progress to AIDS.

"I tell everybody -- I'm not ashamed or afraid of it," said Bernadette Bullard, 52, who learned she was positive while in a jail cell almost 25 years ago. "People respect me when I tell them. People that know me respect me more."

So when friends asked her to share her story with a reporter in advance of Sunday's National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Bullard came through.

Candid and astonishingly forthcoming about her personal history, which includes a 30-year active cocaine addiction that landed her in the Monroe County jail more times than she can count offhand, Bullard believes she was spared to carry a message of hope to others struggling with HIV.

"How can I help somebody truly feel they don't have to be alone with this disease?" Bullard said she often asks herself. "I've never been in the hospital behind it. I take my medications every day."

Bullard's open-book style comes at a time when she represents the fastest growing population of HIV.

Among racial and ethnic groups, black Americans face the most severe burden of HIV in the nation.

Blacks make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, yet they accounted for almost half -- 46 percent -- of people living with HIV in 2008, as well as an estimated 44 percent of new infections in 2009.

HIV infections among blacks overall have been roughly stable since the early 1990s.

Black women -- more than any other women in the United States -- are getting HIV, according to the federal government's research.

Of all the women living with HIV in the United States, about 66 percent are African-American. Most of these women, 87 percent, were infected by having unprotected sex with a man.

Bullard counts as one of her closest friends Peggy Ward-Grant, a veteran counselor in Key West who for several years has worked as an HIV prevention educator for the Monroe County Health Department. They've known one another for more than 20 years.

"She's very brave to do this," Ward-Grant said of Bullard's willingness to grant an interview about her HIV status. "Being a small town, we don't talk enough about it. She's been there, she's done it. She stays on course."

'My life is beautiful now'

Bullard has told her survivor's tale in public before, including one civic event where the audience included Key West police officers who knew her well from arrests over a 25-year period.

One officer told her later that he was happy to see her in better times.

Then again, she has survived far worse than public scrutiny.

Born in Freeport, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, Bullard said she fled an abusive, alcoholic home at age 14, dropping out of school in the ninth grade.

Her mother had friends in Key West, including a couple that eventually took her in as family, but Bullard was essentially on her own for years as a young woman, cleaning rooms at hotels across the island.

She remains in touch with her daughter, now 37, who lives in Texas, but Bullard never had blood relatives in Key West nor married.

Today, she cherishes her newfound independence.

"It's me, my little dog and God," she said, beaming. "My life is beautiful now."

Bullard said Key West felt like home the moment she arrived, on a shrimp boat whose captain allowed her the ride from Texas.

Except for a stint in a Miami rehab and more than six years in state prison for a total of seven cocaine possession convictions between 1988 and 1995, Bullard has lived squarely in Key West for 35 years.

Many of those years saw her landing in jail, eight times between 2003 and 2012, according to Sheriff's Office records, the types of charges that become commonplace for a longtime addict. Four times between 1988 and 2007, she was sentenced to prison time.

A volunteer at the Glad Tidings food pantry twice a week, Bullard is also in classes working toward her GED.

She credits Florida Keys nonprofits, such as Samuel's House and AIDS Help Inc., and staff at the Monroe County Health Department with helping her get a second chance at a clean, productive life.

This past Christmas, Bullard went to sleep in the first home of her own after a 90-day stay at Samuel's House, a safe haven for homeless women suffering from alcoholism and addiction. A nonprofit provided her with holiday decorations.

A second chance

While Bullard has lived HIV-positive since 1988, believing she contracted it through intravenous drug use by sharing needles with others who were infected, her cocaine addiction finally brought her to her knees last summer.

Like many recovering addicts, the date is sacred to her: June 28, 2012.

Inside a jail cell on a petty theft charge, Bullard said she knelt in prayer and asked for God's help.

"I was tired," Bullard said Thursday, seated inside an office at the county Health Department at the Gato Building in downtown Key West. Her 3-year-old American Chihuahua, Jasmine Monique, wearing a cotton-candy pink coat, waited patiently under the desk.

"I asked God to help me and he did," said Bullard. "I stayed up for a solid week. I said, 'If I can stay up all week on crack cocaine, I can stay up for a week praying to you.'"

Some of the guards later told her she scared them, screaming out, "Oh, Lord," in desperate tones, she said.

She started at age 18, injecting herself with cocaine after watching someone do it. The man she asked refused, saying she would have to learn for herself.

What was a choice one day turned into a raging addiction that rendered her powerless to the drug.

In the end, however, Bullard said that jails and prisons saved her life.

While locked up in 1988, jail staff asked inmates if they wanted HIV testing. She said yes.

"It wasn't a surprise to me," Bullard said. "I knew some of the people I was shooting up with had it. At the time, the disease was overtaking people left and right."

Injection drug users represented 9 percent of annual new HIV infections in 2009 and 17 percent of those living with HIV in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bullard said she quit the needles when she learned she had HIV, and fed her addiction by smoking crack cocaine.

These days, Bullard gets around the island on her cruise-style bicycle, affixed with a decorative pink basket built to spec for Jasmine.

"We go everywhere together," Bullard said of the dog she's raised from a puppy.

Freedom means more than having left a jail cell or a courtroom, she said.

"I went by nicknames, fake names," she said. "I had so many masks on, I really didn't know who Bernadette was. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'Who are you today?' When I got down to who Bernadette is, I love Bernadette today."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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