15,000 people within Central Florida are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Sharon Douglass, 64, a professor at the University of Central Florida has had the life long goal to bring the number of individuals infected by the disease down to zero. To her it is all about spreading awareness through education and activism.
“If you don’t sleep, eat and breathe HIV disease, and you don’t own it, then you will never do anything from keeping yourself being at risk,” stated Professor Douglass regarding her approach on educating UCF students about the life altering affects of the disease.
Douglass began offering the course HIV: A Human Concern in 1985 at UCF. A class that she likes to call “the world’s best kept secret” due to many students not knowing the class exists and the fact that it is exclusively taught by her at UCF.
Her idea of educating her students about the epidemic is not solely based on reading a few textbooks, but through assimilation. Douglass’ course requires students to live as if they were infected by the disease through tasks such as consuming M&M’s as if it were their HIV medication. Students are asked to treat the candy as if it were a pill by having the same structured time frames a person on actual HIV medication would have. A student will swallow the candy with food, without food, half an hour before breakfast leading up to 4 times a day and sometimes even more in certain cases. Then, students are asked to keep track of their experience in a journal.
However, Douglass does not want to send the message that HIV is something to be ignored based on the fact that there is medication to treat the disease.
“People think that because of medications, that are very expensive and highly toxic, that HIV is a manageable disease now- it’s not.”
According to Central Florida’s very own HIV/AIDS organization the Hope and Help Center, the average cost of medication to treat HIV can be up to $1,400 a month. Through the AIDS Insurance Continuation Program, a statewide program for people who cannot maintain private health insurance as a result of their HIV status, Hope and Help can pay up to $750 a month for the continuation of a client’s medical, dental, mental health and optical coverage.
However due to state budget cuts not everyone has access to medication.
According to the AIDS Health Care foundation 1, 361 people- more than one third of the 3,337 people on Aids Drug Assistant Program’s list nationwide- are in Florida.
Another way Douglass raises awareness through education is by giving students the choice of volunteering 18 hours at an AIDS organization such as the Hope and Help Center, e-mailing a pen pal living with HIV, participating in a chat room once a week or writing a blog based on researching an HIV topic.
To a UCF student not enrolled in the HIV course 18 hours of volunteering may sound too time consuming. However, to Douglass’ student Sasha Baxter, 20, volunteering is time well spent.
“I like it because I used to volunteer at Winter Park Memorial Hospital. Every little bit helps,” stated Sasha while filling paper bags with canned food for the food drive hosted by the Hope and Help Center at Thanksgiving for clients in need.
Meghan Scott, the coordinator and development assistant at Hope and Help and also a UCF alumnus of 2008, is in charge of setting up volunteers from Douglass’ class with hours. According to Scott, “everyone has something they can do to do help whether it is donate money or volunteer”.
Douglass’ second approach to downsizing the spread of HIV is through activism.
“It’s time for the next generation to start taking over which is what I’m hoping to do is to make a generation of activists that will get out there,” stated Douglass while expressing she is not asking people to heckle the president because he has not done enough for the HIV cause.
Douglass describes her students as pebbles causing a ripple in her HIV pond creating a wave and asking them to pay it forward through educating their friends, family and anyone else around them about the disease.
Another form of activism Douglass describes is not just simply talking about HIV, but being involved and getting people involved with the cause to fight the spread of HIV; especially on campus.
“The apathy on this campus can be overwhelming,” described Douglass regarding her struggle with getting students motivated.
Douglass has a line of work under her belt when it comes to getting involved with cause to fight HIV. In Orange and Volusia County she would go teach and train teachers of Life Management and Biology classes.
She said that a lot of these teachers were still scared to talk about HIV.
“You have to have a certain mindset. You can’t be embarrassed. A lot of these teachers were uncomfortable about sexuality and the sexual organs.”
“The problem with the U.S. is that it comes from a Puritan background. That Puritanism has never left; we have not changed our mentality when it comes to sex. We’ll use it to sell everything under the sun, but to talk about it? Oh my god- it’s like pulling teeth,” said Douglass regarding her perspective on the lack of sexual education.
Having read her own ratings on Rate My Professor, Douglass expressed concern for students missing out on an opportunity to enroll in her class based on the negative comments regarding her course work.
“If they take the chance and they come into the course what they will find is that they will leave with a life altering class that they can’t get anywhere else.”
“I would have never known what I know now about HIV if it wasn’t for this course. I probably wouldn’t have been prompted to research as much as I did and realize how important it is to know about this pandemic that could affect anybody,” stated Hannah Rutkowski regarding her experience enrolled in Douglass’ class.
“Everybody has a cross to bare, for some people it’s HIV, for other people its diabetes, for some kids its cancer. I mean, even for the healthiest of people there’s still something in their life that they have to deal with and you learn to deal with it,” explained Douglass in reference to HIV being part of her everyday life.
With a B.S. in Cardiopulmonary Sciences and a M.S. in Health Sciences Education and Evaluation, Douglass’ interest in the HIV epidemic began in the early 1980’s when she worked with a child whom was in remission from leukemia with pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP). Her interest peaked after having read about a PCP outbreak in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which doctors were confused on how the child had contracted PCP considering the child was not part of the normal group with PCP.
Douglass began working with an organization doing hotline counseling for people infected with HIV/AIDS despite not fully understanding exactly what she or anyone was counseling in.
“There wasn’t much coming out. It was so scary, people were paranoid at the time,” said Douglass describing what it was when little was known about the disease.
At the time, Douglass was also teaching at the University of Kansas.
“I realized that as this epidemic was growing that my students in respiratory therapy would be working with these patients, whether they were adults or children it didn’t matter, and so I decided to start teaching something about it.”
Douglass explained that it was when Ryan White stepped into the picture, as far as what living with HIV was, she switched her focus from the scientific perspective to the human perspective.
Being that Douglass is the only professor to offer the HIV course nationwide, she expressed concern for the future of the course when she reaches retirement.
“I’m afraid that when I go it goes, truly. Nobody else seems to be very interested in it.”
As for now, Douglass has hope that her students will leave the class with the education needed to become activists for the prevention of HIV out in the world.
“My ripples are out there. They’re doing their thing, you know, and hopefully one day they’ll be a wave and after that a tidal wave and then maybe HIV will be eradicated, who knows.”