When Patricia Nalls was diagnosed with AIDS at age 29, she figured it was a death sentence. Her husband was already dying of the disease. Nalls had two healthy children, but she felt isolated. She was so ashamed that she didn’t tell her family or friends. “I thought I was the only woman with this,” she recalls.
Nalls asked her doctor if she could put up a flyer in the office to help find other women in her situation. Initially, a tiny support group met in Nalls’s Hyattsville home. A former community organizer, she began to put her old skills to work, researching services for food, housing, child care, and medical care. She discovered that programs for people with HIV/AIDS were geared to men. Those for women were nonexistent.
When the first antiviral drugs became available, Nalls was very sick. But she had begun speaking in public about the need for family-centered services. Food-delivery programs would send meals for an AIDS patient, but if that person was a mother, she often would give the meal to her children and go hungry herself.
Eventually Nalls’s informal support group grew too big for her home. In 1995, she formally turned the group into the Women’s Collective. Today, at the organization’s Northeast DC headquarters, she and a staff of 18 serve more than 300 HIV-positive Washington-area women with counseling as well as food, housing, and medical assistance; they help thousands more with prevention programs, screening, and education.
“We’ve had engineers, nurses, attorneys come here for help,” Nalls says. “We are the only women-specific program in the area.”
Women are still dying disproportionately. AIDS is the leading cause of death in the United States for African-American women ages 24 to 35.
Nalls is one of the lucky ones. Her two living children were eight and four when she was diagnosed, and she didn’t expect to survive to see them graduate from high school. They’re now 32- and 28-year-old college graduates. Nalls just became a grandmother.
“I believe this all happened for a purpose,” she says of her past tragedies. “At the Women’s Collective, even before you get care, you get hope.”