PILLAGER -- It's the little things that make life so sweet for Connie Statz of Pillager.
Like feeling the cold, crisp winter air whispering against her cheek. Or taking time to appreciate the many vibrant colors found around her. And the soft smell of her baby granddaughter's hair.
Because Statz often has to stop and ask herself, "Will this be my last?"
Statz, 46, is a long-term survivor of AIDS, a deadly virus she contracted from AIDS-tainted blood products during surgery in 1981. Doctors discovered she had AIDS in 1993 after she started feeling tired and experienced an inexplicable rapid weight loss.
At the time of her diagnosis, doctors gave her only 18 months to live. Through advanced medications, the support of her family and her faith, the Pillager mother of two has outlived the prognosis she was given in 1993. She's had AIDS for almost 21 years.
"It's been an awakening," she said. "I wish other people could feel the awakening. Not feel the AIDS, but the awakening. Then we wouldn't have so many problems in this world."
Statz wasn't supposed to live to see her son Nathan, 27, graduate from medical school. He's now a chiropractor in Virginia Beach, Va. She wasn't supposed to be there when her youngest son, Nicholis, 23, graduated from Pillager High School in 1997. He works as a certified nursing assistant at a Brainerd group home and spends most of his days taking care of his mother, too.
And Connie never imagined she'd see the birth of a grandchild. Nicholis and girlfriend Kate Andrews are now living temporarily with Connie and her husband of 27 years, Jim Statz, so Connie is able to see her only grandchild, Maija, now 5 1/2 months old, whenever she wants.
"She's just someone who I never thought would be in my life," Connie said of her granddaughter. "Maija has given me another reason, even if I didn't need one, to live each day to the fullest."
Life is good, despite AIDS. It hasn't robbed her of her sense of humor, either.
"I wake up each day and I say, 'I woke up,'" said Connie with a laugh. "And I'm glad I woke up."
At the time of her diagnosis, the AIDS support group in Brainerd hadn't yet been formed. Connie didn't know anyone who had AIDS. She and a friend tried to attend another support group but were told to leave the meeting after she told them she had AIDS. It wasn't something the group facilitator was trained to help with, she said she was told. She spent two hours crying in the car after having to get up and leave the support group.
"I had to get up in front of 30 people and leave," said Connie. "I'd never experienced rejection like that."
There are more resources in the Brainerd lakes area for people affected by HIV/AIDS now than there were even eight years ago. Camp Benedict, a camp for families affected by HIV/AIDS, is held each summer at Camp Knutson near Crosslake. The AIDS support group meets at noon the first and third Thursday of each month at St. Joseph Home Health Care in Brainerd. (Call 1-888-235-2049 for more information.)
And Renee Steffen, a Brainerd HIV/AIDS advocate, coordinates Fighting AIDS Through Education, or FATE, a volunteer group of peer educators at Brainerd High School sponsored by the American Red Cross and the Brainerd School District. There are 23 peer educators in ninth through 12th grade who have trained to educate other students about AIDS and HIV/AIDS prevention. The group recently was selected to present one of its skits at a national American Red Cross convention in Charlotte, N.C.
FATE peer educators once again will host a Shoot for the Cure basketball benefit tournament April 13 at Brainerd High School.
When Connie speaks to area groups, churches and students about AIDS and her personal experience, she has found a supportive audience. She was expected to speak to ninth-graders at Pine River-Backus High School today. Last July she spoke at a national Catholic AIDS conference in Chicago, and she spoke at a national Lutheran Social Service conference in St. Louis last spring.
"I've learned to live with it," Connie said of AIDS. "Everyone has problems. I'm not saying mine is any bigger. Mine just has a name. It's called AIDS, and for many it's an ugly word."
In addition to AIDS, Connie suffers from AIDS-related diabetes and lipodystrophy, an AIDS-related condition that affects the way fat is distributed on her body. This is why her stomach is more well-rounded yet her legs and arms are very thin, she said. Her immune system is low, so a common cold could be deadly.
When her granddaughter was recently diagnosed with RSV, a respiratory infection, Nicholis left the baby in his car after her doctor's appointment, ran into his parents' home, grabbed extra clothing and supplies and moved himself, his girlfriend and daughter into a friend's home for a week, despite Connie's protests. Nicholis is determined to keep his mother from getting sick.
"It's always been my biggest fear, to get my mom sick," he said.
Connie hopes she'll be healthy enough to go on a cruise with her family next year. She used to travel a lot, and can't wait to feel the sun on her face again.
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