Editor’s Note

This article is brought to you by Equitas Health and was submitted for publication on Richland Source.

An AIDS diagnosis in 2016 left Eugene West Jr. in shock and disbelief. He had no idea he had been living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

A persistent and painful migraine had left him weak, throwing up, and unable to stand on his feet. His parents called an ambulance after he fell at their home. Doctors discovered he had cryptococcal meningitis, an infection often related to HIV/AIDS. West spent the next two months in the hospital.

The doctors made a plan for West’s care, including antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications. They also notified the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) about West’s diagnosis. A disease intervention specialist at ODH referred him to Equitas Health.

Formerly known as AIDS Resource Center Ohio (ARC Ohio), Equitas Health has been in Mansfield since 2003. The Columbus-based, non-profit healthcare system serves people living with HIV/AIDS, the LGBTQ+ community and others seeking a welcoming and affirming healthcare home. Offices throughout Ohio connect people in rural areas to free HIV and STI testing, doctors and pharmacists who treat HIV, financial assistance, housing, dentists, counselors and support groups.

The Mansfield office serves 160 clients living in Ashland, Crawford, Erie, Huron, Knox, Marion, Morrow, Richland, and Wyandot counties. According to the ODH, about 450 people in the nine-county area are living with HIV.

Nikki Holmes works with 40 to 55 clients as a non-medical health advocate in Mansfield. She worked with West after his health stabilized and he no longer needed medical case management.

“When he started with us he was really sick. His health was not stable,” said Holmes. Once West’s health improved, and he went on Medicare and Medicaid, he no longer needed Equitas Health services. However, he stayed connected to Holmes for support and information.

“Our offices become safe spaces for folks who may not have a support system. They use the support and information they get here to help them stay grounded,” said Holmes.


There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral medicine can help people living with HIV achieve an undetectable viral load. This means the amount of virus is so low that a blood test cannot detect it. When HIV is undetectable, it is untransmittable (U=U). People living with undetectable HIV cannot transmit it to their sex partners.

They can also live longer and healthier lives. “They have raised families, had successful careers, built community, and survived pandemics,” said Jodi Startup, health advocacy supervisor in the Mansfield office.

People living with undetectable HIV get regular blood tests to detect the amount of HIV in their blood. If a person has less than 20 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood, their HIV is undetectable. West’s HIV has been undetectable now for more than three years. He feels healthier than he has ever been.

Of the Mansfield office’s 110 clients with up-to-date blood work, 102 have achieved undetectable viral loads.

“Some folks can’t believe their HIV is undetectable, especially if they were really sick when they were diagnosed,” said Holmes.

West credits his family for bringing him back from near death. “I always had support from my family and friends. Their love got me through,” he said.

He encourages anyone living with HIV to get tested and stay on antiretroviral medications, so they can maintain an undetectable viral load. He can’t say enough about the importance and relief of being undetectable. It has changed his outlook on life and prompted him to do outreach work in the community.

“People need to understand what U=U means. The only way to do that is to put a face to it,” he said.

West often shares his story with others, even if it means facing stigma. “It’s hard living with HIV in a small town. We need to stop criminalizing the disease,” he said.

Holmes tells people that her clients are more in tune with their health than most. “They take their meds, they go to the doctor regularly, and they are healthier than we are,” she said.

Seven years later, West still gets emotional when he thinks about his journey from diagnosis to undetectable status.

“I was broken and insecure, but I knew there was something for me to do here. I had no other choice but to be a role model,” he said.

Learn more about sexual health clinics and HIV/STI testing at EquitasHealth.com/testing.

Learn more about HIV health & housing support services at equitashealth.com/our-services/hiv-advocacy/.

For more information about support groups for people living with HIV, visit EquitasHealth.com/starthealing.

Equitas Health Mansfield is located at 410 Park Ave. West, Suite 5. Walk in hours are MON – FRI from 9 AM – 5 PM, or call (419) 525-2437 to make an appointment.

The Life & Culture section is powered by University Hospitals Samaritan Medical Center.

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