Living a full life, despite illness and loss

Posted in: Dose Newsletter, Our Stories
April 11, 2016

A pretty, petite, 21-year-old is not exactly who comes to mind when we think of a long-term survivor of HIV and AIDS.

But she is.

Kalayah Lanice Smith was born, HIV positive, on Sept. 14, 1994.  That makes her a long-term survivor, at the ripe old age of 21, who helped us focus our attention on Youth HIV AIDS Awareness Day, April 10.

For Kalayah, there’s been a good deal of illness and even experimental medications that scarred her body. She attended three high schools and was bullied at each one because of her positive status. Undoubtedly, Kalayah could bemoan the life she inherited … and, for a time, she was angry.

“I blamed my father. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you just abort me when you had the chance? Why didn’t you wait another year when medicine preventing mother-to-child transmission came out? Y’all should have waited,’ ” Kalayah rants, then calms. In a be-careful-what-you-wish-type moment, she adds, “If they had waited a year to have me, I probably would have turned out to be a boy.”

It’s evident Kalayah loves being a girl. She adores make-up, hair styling, and manicured fingers and toes. And, while there might be plenty to be sad about, she always smiles. She refuses to get mired in sadness and shame. There’s no time for that. She’s got plans.

The 2013 graduate of Alessandro High School in Hemet wants the same things any other young woman wants – a career and a family. But Kalayah’s dreams are bigger than that. She also wants to be a psychologist, author, and motivational speaker who tells her story. Not the sad story: Her mother died of multiple organ failure when Kalayah was 14. A sister born with HIV died at age 4 and another sister contracted it while in the throes of a drug addiction. Despite, or because of all this, Kalayah insists her story will be one of hope and success.

“People often ask, ‘How can you keep a smile on your face?’ ” Her answer: “Because there may be someone out there who’s worse off them me. When I become a motivational speaker, I’ll tell people to keep moving on. If I can make it, you can, too. Just keep moving on.”

Kalayah is among the approximate 84,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living with HIV. She helps illuminate the issue of youngsters with the infection.

Today, the CDC says the risk of mother-to-child transmission of AIDS the way Kalayah contracted is fairly low. About 200 babies a year are born with the infection, according to the agency.

The risk of transmission falls when:

  • Women with HIV receive medicine during pregnancy, childbirth and, in certain situations, have a scheduled cesarean (C-section) delivery.
  • Babies born to women with HIV receive HIV medicines for 6 weeks after birth and are not breastfed.

Back in 1993 when Kalayah was born, knowledge, medication, and procedures weren’t what they are today.  The chief concern about youth and HIV these days is the rate and the method by which they are getting infected.

  • Youth aged 13 to 24 accounted for an estimated 26% of all new HIV infections in the United States in 2010.
  • Most new HIV infections among youth occur among gay and bisexual males; there was a 22% increase in estimated new infections in this group from 2008 to 2010.
  • Over 50% of youth with HIV in the United States do not know they are infected.

Youngsters often contract the virus when they hang out with mature adults, who are more likely to be infected, and when alcohol or drugs are a precursor to sex.

Kalayah calls that an unfortunate circumstance over which people, regardless of their age, can and must take control. She urges fellow Millennials to take advantage of the information and preventative medications now available. But mostly, she wants to model the full life that young people can have in spite of their HIV status.

She had a typical childhood growing up in western Riverside County. There was Double Dutch rope skipping, mud pies, snails, and Barbies. Today, there’s shoes, clothes, and parties. Her love of old movies, vintage TV shows, and vinyl played on a record player officially categorize Kalayah as an “old soul” who is both wise and assertive when speaking to fellow HIV-positive youth. “You have to push yourself and go after your purpose,” she insists.

Watch Kalayah. She’ll show you how it’s done.

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