When Joshua Thomas discovered he was HIV-positive in 2009, he thought the most difficult part of his journey would be coming out to his family.
“At that time,” Thomas recalls, “I wasn’t even out to them as being gay, and so I had that to deal with. Then I got diagnosed, and it wasn’t until a year and a half later that I finally told my mom. Since then, everyone’s been super supportive. I had nothing to worry about.” Close friends have also been a huge help. As he says, “They’ve been there through everything.”
But despite being surrounded by love and support, Thomas began to experience serious side effects from his medication regimen. He started antiretrovirals nine months after being diagnosed, when his T- cell count hovered around 250.
“The first medication I started on was Atripla,” Thomas says, explaining that the side effects began soon afterward. “There was nausea and then just a constant fog throughout the day, a haze,” he remembers. “As the time went on, I stopped taking my meds because of the side effects, but didn’t really realize that was the reason. It was just this whole mental thing.”
Looking back, Thomas acknowledges he should have talked to his doctor about these issues sooner. Like most people, he was hesitant to report unhealthy behaviors or habits to his health provider. So for some time he held back the fact that he had not been adherent. Now he advises others who are experiencing negative side effects to talk to their doctor right away, because there are more HIV treatment options than ever before.
“I waited a really long time to bring it up to my doctor,” Thomas says. “I’d say just do it sooner because in that relationship, they’re the medical professional, and most likely they’re on your side. You can always try out the new meds and if they work, continue on that path. If not, see what else is out there and hopefully you can figure one out that doesn’t give you any side effects.”
Making the change was easy, says Thomas, and afterwards everything fell into place for him. “We made the switch [to Complera] and the medication kept working and my side effects went away completely. My numbers have gone up and up … my T-cell count is at over 850, so I’m doing great and I’m undetectable.”
With the right treatment therapy in place, Thomas was able to focus on his life, career, and passions with a clear mind and positive outlook. He left an unfulfilling job at an accounting firm to go into nonprofit work. Since high school, Thomas says he knew he wanted to help others. He now works for an organization that helps children and volunteers his time talking to young people about HIV prevention.
“I knew that I needed to speak out about it, to make sure other people didn’t end up in my shoes… I got to go out to different high schools and colleges throughout the year and speak to the kids and share my story in hopes that they learn from it,” explains Thomas. He says this makes him feel like a warrior in the fight against HIV: “Just giving back to the community, that’s my passion.”
Thomas hopes to eventually shift his work with nonprofits toward helping LGBT people and those living with and affected by HIV, but for now he’s content with where he is. Aside from surrounding himself with a strong support system — of friends, family, and a good doctor — and trying to a live a healthy lifestyle, Thomas says he also takes time every day for fun recreational activities to keep himself happy and healthy.
“I do enjoy running sometimes, getting out with my dogs, gardening,” he says. While he’s “not like a professional dancer or anything,” Thomas indulges in a daily one-hour dance session in his living room. “I just love music, I love dancing,” he says. “I don’t even need to shut the blinds!”