Michelle Rojas: A prescription for hope

10/15/2008 12:01 AM

12/07/2008 9:36 PM

Michelle Rojas’ work with those who have HIV/AIDS began with tears and thrived on faith.

“God led me here,” she said. “God was in it ... to prepare my heart to do the work without any fear.”

As a physician working in community health centers in South Carolina during the 1980s, Rojas spent many hours under bridges and in shelters, ministering to the homeless. She was young — only 32 — and five years out of medical residency.

One day a young man came to see her. His name was David.

A nursing student at the University of South Carolina, David went to Rojas with sinus trouble.

At the end of the visit, Rojas saw that David was weeping as he went out the door.

“I didn’t offend you, did I?” she asked.

David told her that she hadn’t — it was just that he recently had been diagnosed with AIDS and couldn’t find a doctor willing to treat him.

Tears sprang to her eyes and a quick prayer rose from her lips.

She told David, “If you’re willing for me to work with you, I would be happy to be your physician.”

Rojas spent several weeks reading up on HIV/AIDS and then started caring for the young man. With her help, David survived three more years — he even returned to nursing school.

Soon word spread that Rojas was willing to treat people with HIV. At one point, she was serving about 250 people with HIV/AIDS, most of whom had little or no insurance.

Twenty-plus years after seeing her first patient with HIV, Rojas — her wavy black hair now finely streaked with gray — smiled as she recounted story after story of longtime patients.

One was a seventh-grader afraid she would die before she grew up.

The girl, now a graduate student in her 20s, lives in Maryland and is engaged to be married.

“What would have happened to this kid if she hadn’t been given ... hope?” Rojas asked. “She still touches my life to this day.”

Another patient, formerly an IV drug user and homeless, has shaken illegal drugs, takes her HIV medications religiously, and has found a job and a house.

“My message (is) not one of death,” Rojas said, who lives in Columbia. She says to her patients, “I’ll try to keep you as healthy as I can.”

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