GRAND RAPIDS, Mich -
He has a red ribbon tattoo on his arm and wears a less permanent version in the form of a tiny pin on his chest.
“I remember when I could wear this red ribbon, and everybody knew what it was,” said Jeffrey Cipcic, 48, from Grand Rapids.
The salon owner says all that has changed. The conversation about HIV/AIDS has faded.
“People are like, ‘What is that for?’” he says.
That’s the main reason Cipcic has made it his mission to educate others and raise awareness for a disease he has been living with for more than two decades.
“I was the 37th person to ever get tested in Kent County, that’s how long ago it was,” he says.
Diagnosed at 20, Cipcic remembers being a scared Ferris State University student waiting on the phone for his test results.
“The nurse said just a minute let me go get the doctor, then I started sliding down the wall. This guy got on the phone and said, ‘Your test results are positive.’”
Cipcic was told he had two years to live. A healthy young athlete, he felt like his world was crushed. He struggled for 6 months and didn’t even tell his parents for four years.
“My mom said, ‘Are you sick?’” he remembers. ‘And I started crying, and she said, ‘Do you have AIDS?’ I heard the phone drop and heard her hit the floor screaming.”
Jeffrey just turned 48 and has beat all the odds. He has a partner, runs a successful business, and has stayed alive for 28 years. He looks healthy and the virus is now nearly undetectable in his system.
Yet, he wants others to know it has been no picnic. He shows the ugly side of living with HIV, like the massive amounts of prescription pills that are part of his daily regime.
At one point, he was taking 125 pills twice a day.
“I went seven years and there wasn’t a day I didn’t vomit or have an accident,” he admits.
He has had two years of AIDS-related cancer and has gone through extensive chemotherapy.
“I have had many periods in my life where I didn’t know if I would live the next year, even my doctors would say that, it was tough.”
He wants others to know that it has been a long road and is still shocked that so many people aren’t aware of risk factors and aren’t protecting themselves.
According to the latest July 2012 statistics by the Kent Count Health Department, 1,080 people are living with HIV in the county.
Cipcic, who works with local clinics, was surprised to find out that the main clinic in Grand Rapids for HIV/AIDS patients has accepted 100 new patients in 2012, some of which were tested at the clinic and others who came in from other communities.
“One hundred in a year and they have 900 patients total, that’s a lot,” he said.
Statistics don’t account for those who don’t know they are infected. According to the Centers For Disease Control, one in five people living with HIV in the U.S are unaware of their infection.
“That tells me there is an issue of getting the message out there, that people aren’t listening or they don’t care, something is wrong,” Cipcic said.
He hopes to change that mentality.
“Do you realize that when you have unprotected sex you are sleeping with everyone they have slept with, once you say that to someone you see there eyes go wow,” said Cipci.
He has become and advocate for awareness and an educator. For the last four years, he has organized a World Aids Day event in Grand Rapids.
“The core is bringing back awareness,” he said.
“The scariest part is we get further away from the 1980s and 1990s and we almost don’t know how to be safe.”
His advice? Get tested and protect yourself.
Cipcic has organized a World Aids event on Saturday, Dec. 1, in Grand Rapids. A Community Reflects, Reacts, and Rejoices will take place at 6:30 p.m. at Fountain Street Church at 24 Fountain Street NE.
It will include a vigil, entertainment, and is free to the public.
The Kent County Health Department is also holding free testing on Monday, Dec. 3, at the main building located at 700 Fuller Avenue NE from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The HIV rapid test gives results in about 10-20 minutes.