Shepherd tends HIV/AIDS flock|Counselor, diagnosed with disease, speaks from her experiences

Published 3:36 pm Friday, September 4, 2009

By By GREG KATSKI Community Editor
When Elizabeth Shepherd was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, she thought her life was over. Little did she know her life, or at least a new chapter in it, was just beginning.
Twelve years later, Shepherd is the HIV/AIDS health educator for Metropolitan Community Health Services. Recently, she coordinated a town hall-style meeting at Metropolitan AME Zion Church that welcomed HIV/AIDS carriers and advocates from 11 counties in the region. On-hand at the meeting was Jeff Crowley, the director of the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy.
Shepherd has made it her mission to see that people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and living in eastern North Carolina’s rural counties get the proper care they need through education and action. She said area services provided to those stricken with the disease are minimal.
“HIV is a pandemic out here in the rural areas, because they (carriers) don’t have the services, don’t have the transportation,” she said.
Shepherd said she has helped people in Belhaven, Pantego and Aurora get to Greenville where they receive the care they need. Several of them are patients at Pitt County Memorial Hospital.
Shepherd is looking to further her mission by striving for bachelor-of-science degree in community health education and promotion at East Carolina University. She is set to graduate next spring.
Shepherd, 50, has taken a long and, often, tumultuous road to being a HIV/AIDS advocate.
She grew up in northern Illinois, moved with her family to Alaska as a child, then, when she was in her mid-30s, to Charleston, S.C., to be with her ailing grandmother.
On a normal, quiet evening in Charleston, Shepherd said, she was jumped by several men in a back alley near the College of Charleston’s campus. The men raped her, then beat her with 2-by-4 pieces of lumber.
“They were screaming at me, ‘We’re going to kill you because some white girl gave us AIDS,’” Shepherd said.
The next thing, Shepherd recalled, she was riding in an ambulance to a hospital.
“They beat me down until I was left for dead,” she said. “All the bones in my body were broken. I was ripped up real bad.”
Shepherd said she was the hospital in a full-body cast for more than four months. After checking out of the hospital, she began to rehabilitate and relearn basic motor skills. Things were looking up until she was diagnosed with HIV almost a year after the attack.
“I just knew then that my life was over,” she said. “My life was never going to be the same — if I lived.”
Shepherd said she was disowned by her family and shunned by her friends. Alone, scared and helpless, she didn’t know where to turn.
“I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know what HIV was. I just knew that people died from it,” she said.
Shepherd said that, by the grace of God, a married couple and pastors at Shepherd’s church took her in. The pastors, Michelle and Floyd Dotter, remain her best friends.
With a place to stay and food to eat, Shepherd had time to think about her future. She realized that with so much bottled-up anger and a newly found drug problem, she needed to go to rehabilitation.
Shepherd checked herself into a 12-month drug and alcohol program, Charleston County Adult Drug Court. During the program, she was treated by counselor Ricky Dennis, who was also a pastor at Charleston’s AME Zion Church.
“He basically is the one that opened my heart and transformed my mind,” Shepherd said.
She graduated from the program in 2002, and she decided it was time to go back to school. She went to Trident Technical College in Charleston for two years before transferring to the University of South Carolina. Living in Columbia, S.C., she began to work as an HIV/AIDS counselor, consoling young women who felt like she once did — lost, scared, lonely. At a counseling conference, Shepherd met the man she calls the love of her life, Scott Shepherd. Elizabeth and Scott, who is HIV negative, dated long distance before Elizabeth moved to Greenville to live with Scott two years ago. The two got married last year and moved to Washington.
Shepherd, who is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society at ECU, said she was called to Washington by God.
“I think this is an awesome opportunity that I accidentally walked into,” she said. “There is a huge need around here (for HIV/AIDS services).”